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Who Leaves? Teacher Attrition and Student Achievement

Donald Boyd, Pamela Grossman, Hamilton Lankford, Susanna Loeb, James Wyckoff
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Document date: March 01, 2009
Released online: April 16, 2009

The text below is an excerpt from the complete document. Read the full paper in PDF format.


Teacher attrition has attracted considerable attention as federal, state and local policies- intended to improve student outcomes, increasingly focus on recruiting and retaining more qualified and effective teachers. But policy makers are often frustrated by the seemingly high rates of attrition among teachers earlier on in their careers. This paper analyzes attrition patterns among teachers in New York City elementary and middle schools and explores whether teachers who transfer among schools, or leave teaching entirely, are more or less effective than those who remain. Findings show first-year teachers who are less effective in improving student math scores have higher attrition rates than do more effective teachers. This raises important questions about current retention and transfer policies.


Almost a quarter of entering public-school teachers leave teaching within the first three years (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). The rates are higher in schools with low academic achievement, leading many to conclude that policies to reduce teacher attrition are needed in order to improve student achievement. High attrition would be particularly problematic if those leaving were the more able teachers. While teachers who have stronger academic backgrounds, measured by test scores and the competitiveness of their undergraduate institutions, are more likely to leave teaching (Boyd et al., 2005), there is remarkably little evidence that documents the effectiveness of teachers who leave low-scoring schools. Employing estimates of the value novice teachers add to student testscore gains in New York City (NYC), the paper assesses the relative effectiveness of teachers who stay in their original school, transfer within NYC, transfer to another New York State (NYS) district, or leave NYS public schools. We pay particular attention to attrition patterns in lower-scoring schools and, for the teachers in these schools who transfer within the NYC public system, differences between the schools to which the relatively more and less effective teachers move.

Teacher retention may affect student learning in several ways. First, in high-turnover schools, students may be more likely to have inexperienced teachers who we know are less effective on average (Rockoff, 2004; Rivkin et al., 2005; Kane et al., 2006). Second, high turnover creates instability in schools, making it more difficult to have coherent instruction. This instability may be particularly problematic in schools trying to implement reforms, as new teachers coming in each year are likely to repeat mistakes, rather than improve upon reform implementation. Third, high turnover can be costly in that time and effort is needed to continuously recruit teachers. In addition to all these factors, turnover can reduce student learning if more effective teachers are the ones more likely to leave.

Recent research has dramatically increased our understanding of teacher retention (e.g., Boyd et al., 2005; Hanushek et al., 2004; Ingersoll & Smith, 2003 and 2004; Johnson, 2004; Loeb et al., 2005; Podgursky et al., 2004). These studies show that teacher mobility differs by the characteristics of both teachers and their students. Teachers are more likely to stay in schools having higher student achievement, and teachers – especially white teachers – are more likely to stay in schools with higher proportions of white students. Teachers who score higher on tests of academic achievement are more likely to leave, as are teachers whose home town is farther from the school in which they teach. Attributes of teachers and the students they teach appear to interact in important ways. In particular, teachers having stronger qualifications (as measured by general-knowledge certification-exam scores) are more likely to quit or transfer than are less-qualified teachers, especially if they teach in low-achieving schools (Boyd et al., 2005).

Whether reducing teacher attrition would improve the teacher workforce is an open question. How attrition affects the quality of the teacher workforce depends upon several factors, including the typical gains in effectiveness teachers realize from additional experience, how the average quality of entering cohorts of teachers differ from those who entered the profession earlier, and how turnover affects the functioning of the school and, in turn, the effectiveness of other teachers. A crucial factor is whether those teachers who leave teaching are more or less effective than their peers who remain.

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Topics/Tags: | Education

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