Student Underperformance: The High Price of Teacher Turnover

A recent study from the University of North Carolina provides compelling evidence for the need to retain promising new teachers.  The UNC research team tracked the performance of 624,842 high school students on academic tests.  They then analyzed these results by matching them with the 8,000 teachers working with these students.  Further, they looked at how student performance changed for each teacher over their first five years.   The key finding: it was only when teachers reached their fourth or fifth year in the classroom that their students performed at their maximum level on content-area tests.  In other words, it takes time–four to five years in fact–to become a good teacher.


But here is the problem: half of teachers leave the profession within five years; over 40% of teachers in urban schools leave within three years.  Thus, a significant number of teachers never make it to the four to five year threshold and never achieve higher levels of job proficiency.  On a system-wide scale, this ‘teacher churn’ means that districts and schools struggle to develop a critical mass of experienced, competent teachers, and to implement and maintain school improvement initiatives.  Most importantly, it means that students lose out in a big way, not benefiting from enough highly-skilled teachers over their lifetime.

For this reason, effective teacher retention efforts are among the most important educational reforms we have going.  Whether mentoring, content coaching, team-teaching, or other approaches, districts and schools must devote more resources to keeping teachers around.  The Wheelock Educator Mentor Corps (EMC) — an AmeriCorps service initiative — offers one promising approach.  The EMC recruits exceptional, retired educators to return as mentors.  Not bound by their own teaching responsibilities and schedules, they are flexible to work with new teachers in classrooms.  Currently, 25 EMC mentors are working with over 40 new teachers in Boston.  And hopefully all of these teachers will stay well past their fifth year.


Jake Murray is the Senior Director of Aspire Institute. He has over 20 years of experience in the education, health and human services fields, serving as an organizational leader, policy analyst, and strategic planner.