Teacher Turnover Hyperbole Gets JOLTed

September 16, 2013

Teacher Turnover Hyperbole Gets JOLTed. In order to support the narrative that public school teachers are under assault, we are periodically treated to claims that they are leaving or being driven out of the profession in swarms, mostly because of lousy pay, poor working conditions, standardized testing, and tyrannical principals and administrators.

It arose again recently when a well-known pundit wrote of teaching, “In no other profession do so many people exit so rapidly.” There’s no evidence to support this statement, and the statistics usually cited are based on an extrapolation computed from 11-year-old data.

No one compiles turnover rates by profession, or subdivides them by number of years of experience. But every month the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) that provides definitive information on hiring, firing and quitting by broad industry categories. Each January survey contains annualized statistics for the previous year, so we have comparable rates for 2008 to 2012.

The first table I reproduce here has the separation rates for each industry. “Separation” includes quits, layoffs, discharges and all other separations from employment, “also referred to as turnover,” the BLS explains. Public school teachers would fall under the category of “state and local government.”


As you can see, state and local government workers separated at a rate of 16.4 percent in 2012, up from 15.6 percent in 2008. However, the national average for all industries in 2012 was 37.1 percent. Turnover in state and local government was lower than all but one other segment of the U.S. economy – that of the federal government. The lowest private sector turnover in 2012 was 22.2 percent in durable goods manufacturing.

Of course, dismissals are much more common in the private sector than in the public sector, and especially in teaching. And since the story is supposed to illustrate how frequently teachers are voluntarily leaving their jobs, let’s take a look exclusively at the “quits” statistics.


In 2012, state and local government workers voluntarily left their jobs at a 7.4 percent rate, slightly lower than in 2008. Again, that is the lowest rate in the nation save for that of federal government workers. In the private sector, every segment except durable goods manufacturing (9.5%) had a double-digit quits rate. The national average was 18.8 percent.

Finally, if these claims of school employee churn were accurate, we would expect to see it reflected in the tenure statistics – not tenure in the school sense, but in the number of years an employee has worked for his or her current employer. Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects that data, too.

For 2012, the median number of years employees had worked for their current employer was 4.6. In local government, the category where most public school teachers fall, it was 8.1 years. That was more than every industry except the federal government, utilities, and paper and printing.

These figures can’t be conclusive on the issue because they don’t disaggregate education employees from other local government workers, but they are highly suggestive that compared with other professions, teachers are keeping their jobs and holding them for longer periods of time. Assuming teachers aren’t irrational, the jobs must be desirable.

Last Week’s Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics September 10-16:

Key Detail of Kenosha Decertification Under Dispute. This is why I don’t single-source internal union news.

Confirmed: No Election Held in Kenosha. Union still decertified, but it doesn’t tell us anything about level of member support.

Will UFT Get “One for the Thumb?” Union picks mayors like the Jets pick quarterbacks.

Wisconsin’s Act 10 Ruled Constitutional. Free speech does not guarantee an audience.

The Good Times Rolled in North Dakota. Spending surge.

Quote of the Week. “We’re not about picking a mayor. We’re about making a mayor, making the winner. And that’s what we’re gonna do…. I talk to them (the mayoral candidates) constantly. All of them. I know all about all of their families. I know about their dogs and this and that.” – Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, two weeks before the union endorsed Bill Thompson for mayor of New York City. (June 4 Politicker)

Headline of the Week. “Bill Thompson concedes to Bill de Blasio in New York City Democratic mayoral primary.” – September 16 New York Daily News.