Why Some States Have Higher Teacher Turnover Rates Than Others

Teachers pour their heart and soul into their classrooms full of young minds, decorating the room out of their own paycheck, and spending countless hours from their evenings and weekends doing lesson plans and grading papers. For teachers, the extra work is a labor of love. They start fresh every year knowing the difficulties ahead of them, but committed to the work.

But there are times, despite this love for the profession and empathy for the students, that the obstacles become too hard to bare. According to the Learning Policy Institute, almost 10 percent of teachers pack up their desks for good every year.

Those who teach return to the classroom day after day to overcome obstacles and support students who need them the most. Yet there are many teachers who, despite having the desire to support their students, feel unable to remain in the classroom for long.

The impacts of teacher attrition can be costly. It has been shown that teacher turnover harms student achievement along with high financial expenses to affected rural and urban areas. Understanding where and why these educators are leaving the profession may be the best way to begin addressing this issue of retention.

Teacher Shortages and Turnovers

There has been a teacher shortage in the United States for more than a decade. Schools who desperately need more instructors are burdened with pushing students into larger classes, offering fewer electives, and encouraging students to enroll in online courses to help them earn their degree.

There are multiple reasons for this shortage, and budgetary concerns at the state and district level often play a role, but one of the biggest concerns in this regard is teacher turnover.

The Learning Policy Institute reports that every year across the United States about 8 percent of the teacher workforce pack up their desk and move onto other career options. Included in this 8 percent are those who have education degrees, who have wanted to become teachers their whole lives, and who earnestly and honestly love working in the classroom with students, but who still felt compelled to leave the profession.

Why do so many teachers end up leaving the field of education? A number of studies and surveys have been done over the years to answer this question. Some of the most common answers are:

  • Emotional exhaustion/stress/burnout
  • Challenging work conditions and long hours
  • Low pay
  • Not enough support or respect
  • Overemphasis on high-stakes testing
  • Schools are no longer looking out for kids’ best interests
  • In the end, family takes priority

In addition to the plethora of personal reasons why a teacher may leave the profession, the issues also vary greatly by location. Some regions of the United States are facing much higher levels of teacher turnover than others. Analyzing these trends on a state by state basis may provide further insight into the reasoning behind teacher attrition and what can be done to improve teacher retention.

Teacher Turnover: State by State

The highest region of turnover for teachers in the US is the South, with almost 17% turnover annually. While the South has the largest congregate turnover rate, however, the biggest issues in turnover cannot be relegated to just one area of the country. Issues regarding teacher retention is a national crisis.

According to data from the Learning Policy Institute analysis of National Center for Education Statistics School and Staffing Survey, completed from 2011-2014, the two states with the highest turnover rates are Arizona (at an incredible 24% annually) and New Mexico, just below with 23%. From there, the numbers decline gradually, with the lowest turnover rate in the nation belonging to Utah, who boasts of a teacher turnover of under 10%.

Here is the ranking of teacher turnover rates by state, from highest to lowest:

  1. Arizona
  2. New Mexico
  3. Louisiana
  4. Texas
  5. Nevada
  6. Montana
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Mississippi
  9. North Carolina
  10. Delaware
  11. South Carolina
  12. Alaska
  13. Wisconsin
  14. Minnesota
  15. Kentucky
  16. Indiana
  17. Kansas
  18. Colorado
  19. North Dakota
  20. Virginia
  21. Florida
  22. Missouri
  23. Alabama
  24. Arkansas
  25. Iowa
  26. Massachusetts
  27. Indiana
  28. Tennessee
  29. Ohio
  30. Georgia
  31. Michigan
  32. South Dakota
  33. Maryland
  34. Oregon
  35. New York
  36. Connecticut
  37. Nevada
  38. Maine
  39. Washington
  40. Illinois
  41. Pennsylvania
  42. New Jersey
  43. New England (combined)
  44. West Virginia
  45. Utah

Why Certain States Have Lower Teacher Retention Than Others

The reasons behind so many of these shifts out of the teaching profession have remained consistent over time, and can typically be summed up with one common sentiment: dissatisfaction with the profession as a combined result of low wages and high demand on educator performance.

While several reasons exist behind an educator’s decision to leave the profession, as large as 20% of those who leave the teaching profession typically do so as a result of low wages, and this factor is often accounted for among the almost 60% of teachers who cite overall dissatisfaction with their career as their reason for leaving the classroom.

In analyzing the states with the highest teacher turnover rates, there is often a high correlation with the rate of pay—those states with the highest teacher turnover are typically the states with the lowest starting pay for educators, and as the Learning Policy Institute points out, Arizona and New Mexico are prime examples of this issue with average annual teacher salaries of $47,218 and $47,163 respectively.

How to Improve Teacher Retention Rates

Teachers enter the field of education first and foremost because they love the students. Teachers are the first mentors that guide future engineers, lawyers, doctors and lawmakers to become the next generation of citizens. The most formative years of the Nation’s future leaders are in the hands of educators who care so deeply for their students welfare that they put learning objectives and classroom needs above all else.

That some teachers will leave the classroom after only a short time as an educator is to be expected, but to have this as the norm is a problem that the entire country ought to take seriously. The most important thing we can offer our children collectively is a strong education, and this can only be accomplished by supporting those who are willing to dedicate their lives to educating today’s youth. Teachers love teaching, but no one can blame a teacher for feeling unable to teach in their given circumstances.

Improving teacher pay and personal benefits can greatly improve professional satisfaction within academia. The argument that many teachers make is not for arbitrary pay raise, but instead pay that increases at the same rate of other professions. Instead, many teachers face stagnant pay, and are often unable to even afford to live in the areas where they teach, leaving to long commutes and high rental payments.

Addressing teacher stress and burnout may also lead higher teacher retention. A Scholastic report estimates that teachers spend an average of 11 hours working each day. To help teachers get closer to a 40-hour work week, grading assistants can reduce the amount of time teachers spend grading each week. Addressing these issues can provide teachers with the heightened level of support necessary to allow them to put their focus and energy into providing feedback to students.

Dissatisfaction with the profession and teacher stress will continue to spread so long as educators feel that they are not supported in doing their jobs, and when opportunities present would-be dedicated educators with the chance to better support their families, it is no wonder so many leave the profession. Fixing the issue requires a fundamental shift in the value placed on education nationwide.