How to Solve the Teacher Turnover Problem

“The statistics for turnover among new teachers are startling. Some 20 percent of all new hires leave the classroom within three years. In urban districts, the numbers are worse—close to 50 percent of newcomers flee the profession during their first five years of teaching.” So claims the California Teachers Association web site, arguing for higher teacher compensation.

But in one fell swoop we have virtually eradicated the problem in the state, merely by suggesting changes to the teacher pension system.

Researchers like the ones at TeacherPensions.org, a project of Bellwether Education Partners, have their own “half of all teachers” statistic, and it’s that “Half of all teachers leave the profession without a pension.” They recommend retirement plans with a level of portability.

These suggestions struck a nerve at CalSTRS, the state teacher pension fund, and in response Jack Ehnes, its CEO, penned an editorial headlined “Teachers Are Better Off With a Pension Than a 401(k).” That the head of a giant pension system should hold such a position isn’t surprising. What is surprising is the research he cites to support it.

Ehnes notes that pension reform studies “suggest that a large percentage of new teachers drop out early and don’t stay long enough to collect full pension benefits.” This is wrong, he states.

However, most classroom teacher positions in California are not occupied by those who leave after a few years, but by those who stay long-term. A recent study from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, titled Are Teachers Better Off With a Pension or a 401(k)?, analyzed teacher turnover patterns to project the number of years each teacher will work by the time he or she retires from California schools. The research found that 75 percent of teachers will spend 20 years or more in the classroom before retiring in their early 60s.

So to summarize: We need higher salaries because teacher turnover is high, but we shouldn’t change the pension system because teacher turnover is low.

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