More than 6 million California children return to school this fall, but about 25,000 of the teachers they left last semester likely won’t return if recent attrition trends are any indication.
Nearly every U.S. president since Harry Truman has proposed teacher recruitment plans, in addition to countless state-level programs. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recently proposed spending $130 million on teacher recruitment, but such efforts largely miss the mark because the core problem is teacher retention, not recruitment.
Little has changed since 1983 when “A Nation at Risk,” a report based on 18 months of research by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, concluded that “the professional working life of teachers is, on the whole, unacceptable,” which helps explain why the American schoolhouse has become a revolving door for teachers. Average annual national non-retirement teacher turnover rates exceed 14 percent, meaning around a third of the teaching workforce (more than 1 million instructors) are in transition each year.
This turnover costs California taxpayers an estimated $455 million annually, but better employment opportunities like those offered at charter schools could help.
Among nonretiring California teachers at schools run by local districts, more than half who leave blame job dissatisfaction, compared with one in three of their peers nationwide. Inadequate support, excessive bureaucracy, a lack of collegiality and insufficient input under the current district-managed schooling system are leading reasons why California teachers quit.
In contrast, overall satisfaction rates among charter school teachers nationwide, at 82 percent, are more than three times higher than for their district-managed counterparts. Also, more than one in four charter school teachers across the country said they would do something else entirely if they could not teach at a charter school. They cite as key elements of job satisfaction their influence over curricula, student discipline and professional development, as well as school safety, collaboration with colleagues and their schools’ learning environments.
Three of four former California educators would consider returning to teaching if working conditions were better. Less-bureaucratic, independent charter schools have great potential for winning them back. In Los Angeles, for example, 8 percent of teachers came out of retirement specifically to teach at local charter schools.
A district-run schooling system, in which students are typically assigned to schools based on where their families live, is an increasingly unattractive prospect for teachers. It is the relic of a bygone era that held few employment opportunities for women, who historically were three-quarters of the teaching workforce. The times, and employment opportunities, have changed, but California’s district-managed schooling monopoly founders in a time warp.
An unassigned, diversified education system with a variety of schools founded and run by educators would foster strong teacher-school and teacher-student matches and offer teachers the same wide range of employment options other professionals currently enjoy. To attract quality teachers, schools would have to offer competitive salaries, flexible schedules, and professional working environments in which teachers have autonomy to innovate and are rewarded for their success in educating students.
Such a system exists in Japan, and teachers there have parental support, motivated students and salaries that rival Japanese baseball pros. A diversified education system also gets results since Japanese students consistently score at or near the top on international exams across a variety of subjects.
As a reform model, schools founded by educators, like charter schools, hold great promise for filling the void left by decades of disappointing state and national efforts to improve the teaching profession.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is the Education Studies Senior Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., and author of the new IWF study Empowering Teachers with Choice: How a Diversified Education System Benefits Teachers, Students, and America.