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A Dual Dropout Crisis, Part 2 February 2010

A Dual Dropout Crisis, Part 2

By Kenneth R. Howey
Senior Fellow, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Kenneth R. Howey

Last year, 1.23 million students dropped out of school, as I noted in a recent Observation. The problem is a well-documented national crisis, and yet it has failed to create a sense of urgency or a major coordinated effort to address it.

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Kenneth R. Howey is a senior fellow at the Institute, focusing on urban teacher education and school renewal, as well as community partnerships that promote education from preschool through college. In a previous Observation, Howey examined the student dropout crisis. More on the topic can be found in Putting a Stop to Dropouts: Access and Success in Urban Schools: Pre-School through College (2008), which Howey co-edited.

What’s more, there is a second dropout problem of major proportions, which has not been chronicled as widely nor addressed in any systemic manner. It is the teacher dropout problem. The exodus of teachers is most pronounced in urban, high-poverty schools. Teachers are not only leaving the profession in increasing numbers, but early in their careers as well. Unless major changes are made in the next five years, more than a million of our newly minted teachers will leave these schools for other teaching positions — and in many instances leave teaching altogether.

These two major problems intersect. While youngsters drop out of school for a variety of reasons, their lack of academic success is the key factor. The primary determinant of student academic success, regardless of the conditions in which these youngsters live, is a competent and caring teacher. Likewise, teachers leave for a multitude of reasons. However, the inadequacy of their initial preparation to make them ready specifically to teach in high-poverty urban schools, combined with a lack of support and high-quality professional development once they assume a position, are key factors in their early departures. The quality of teaching speaks directly to the student retention problem, and the quality of teacher preparation speaks directly to both the teacher retention problem and to the quality of teaching.

Only about one-half (52 percent) of students in our large urban school systems complete high school with a diploma. The data relative to teachers dropping out in these contexts are similarly disturbing. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2007) reported that the percentage of teachers leaving the profession early has increased significantly, from 15.9 percent to 20.2 percent, reaching one-fifth of the teacher population. In Preparing High-Quality Teachers for High-Need Schools (NCATE, 2009), Marsha Levine reported that approximately 2.5 million novice teachers will be hired over the next decade, mostly by urban school districts. If, however, half of them leave within five years, as she predicts, then after 10 years we’re back where we started. It is essentially a revolving door. These urban schools lack stability, as almost half of their current teachers have been in the schools for three years or less, and their principals average only four years of tenure. High-poverty schools experience considerably higher annual turnover rates (15.2 percent) than do more affluent schools (10.5 percent), according to a 2001 study by Richard M. Ingersoll.

The costs of teacher turnover are substantial in terms of dollars, school efficacy and student learning. The financial costs to replace teachers include the recruitment, hiring, placement, orientation, induction and professional development of the replacement teachers. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates turnover costs at 30 percent of the departing employee’s salary. Thirty percent of $40,000 (a conservative average novice teacher salary estimate), is $12,000. Multiplying that by the 1.25 million teachers projected to leave within five years results in an aggregate $15 billion cost. The cost, however, cannot be measured in dollars alone. Teachers who leave the profession impact school effectiveness in multiple ways, disrupting staff cohesion, institutional memory, curriculum continuity across grade levels and collective accountability for student learning.

The Rockefeller Institute, along with State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, is working with a number of urban universities across the country that serve as anchor institutions in evolving communitywide partnerships focused on education from preschool through college. These systemic partnerships are designed to address problems at every stage of the leaking student educational ‘pipeline.’ Putting a Stop to Dropouts, a report I co-edited in 2008, identifies eight common strategies employed within these evolving partnerships:

1. Creating a strong partnership
2. Fostering university leadership
3. Addressing a compelling need
4. Building a financial network
5. Going beyond the classroom
6. Connecting with parents and families
7. Improving teacher education
8. Setting standards for continuous improvement

Central to the work of these partnerships is recruiting, preparing and retaining high-quality teachers. We need to address the large number of teachers prematurely leaving these urban schools.

This means, first, aggressive recruitment of prospective teachers with a commitment to such school communities. Second, it calls for improved preparation in programs designed specifically to address the conditions they will encounter in these schools. Such preparation, for example, demands greater understanding of the cultures and communities that comprise our urban centers, and the ability to use this social and cultural capital as the launching pad for active and engaged learning.

Third, these teachers also need programs of induction and support during their critical first years of teaching — induction programs that are both extensions and an enrichment of their preservice preparation. In such programs, our novice teachers would have continuing opportunities to learn from and be supported by a range of veteran teachers. These veteran teachers need to be provided the time, the training and title to serve as coaches, mentors and consulting teachers for the beginning teachers. These veteran teacher leadership positions serve two functions — first, as a retention strategy for experienced teachers and second, as a support system for beginning teachers.

Much work remains to be done here. The constant teacher churn in so many schools populated by lower-income students cannot continue. It is the birthright of every youngster to have competent and caring teachers, and a school culture and climate characterized by harmony, stability and high performance.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.