Teacher Retention and the Economy: An Example from North Carolina

A few months ago I wrote about teacher turnover rates in Colorado. The short version: Teacher turnover rates don’t change all that much over time, but we see higher turnover during economic expansions than during recessions.

The same basic trend shows up in newly updated data from North Carolina. The graph below plots teacher turnover rates in North Carolina from 1999 to 2014.* Turnover rates hit a low of 11.17 percent in 2010-11 and climbed to a high of 14.84 percent in 2014-15, but they’ve mostly fluctuated in a relatively tight band.

NC Teacher Turnover, 1999-2014

It may be tempting to conclude that the recent increases in the turnover rate are linked to policies adopted in North Carolina. There may be some of that going on—and indeed, if we asked the departing teachers, they would likely respond that Common Core or teacher evaluations or pension changes were part of their decision.

But the historical data offer another explanation, which is simply that teachers are not immune to broad economic trends. North Carolina teachers were less likely to leave their jobs in the wake of recessions in 2001-2 and 2007-9 than they were during other periods. At the same time, they became more willing to leave during economic expansions like at the end of the 1990s, the mid-2000s, and again today. This is the same pattern I saw in Colorado, and it’s the same pattern that shows up in the national data. We shouldn’t be surprised at this: Teachers are following the same broad economic trends that all other workers follow.

*The rates consider a teacher as having “turned over” if they leave teaching, leave North Carolina, or leave their school district. My thanks to Lucretia Witte for helping me compile and analyze the data.