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Exodus or Exaggeration? A Look at Colorado’s Teacher Turnover Rates

“Mass exodus” sounds scary, doesn’t it? It conjures images of sad, disheveled refugees limping away from burning villages with smoke billowing in the background. That image is probably exactly what anti-reformers in Colorado have been trying to convey as they loudly sound the alarm that teachers are leaving education in droves while malicious reformers try to improve student outcomes by, you know, trying new stuff.

But is that really what’s going on in Colorado? We already know the numbers thrown around in the wake of Douglas County’s reforms fell well short of the truth, but what about the scary Chalkbeat Colorado headline that “More teachers left the school districts where they work last year than at any point in the past 15 years, according to new data from the Colorado Department of Education”? Yeah. Let’s talk about that.

Let’s start by taking a look at an interesting Education Next post by Chad Alderman on Colorado’s turnover numbers. He makes his point by reproducing a graph created by Chalkbeat with a few changes.

Looks pretty volatile, right? See all the peaks and valleys? Now look at the y-axis. For those of you who haven’t been in math class for a while, the y-axis is the vertical axis. Note that the chart’s categories begin at 12 percent turnover and end at 18 percent turnover. Also note that nearly every point along the line falls into a 3-percent band on the chart.

That’s right. As scary as this chart looks with all the climbs and drops, it’s actually conveying a relatively constant trajectory. If the chart’s y-axis started at zero, the line would look almost flat with a few bumps here or there. Which is, of course, why it was produced this way and not that way. Ah, the power of optics.

That’s not to say that there is no trend to be seen here, however. Alderman has cleverly overlaid some basic economic indicators with the Chalkbeat graph (you’ll note that these are the areas indicated by the large, red arrows). His take?

As the economy contracts and it becomes harder to find gainful employment, fewer Colorado teachers leave their jobs. The deeper, longer recession after the financial meltdown in 2007-9 appears related to even lower teacher attrition rates. And then, as the economy begins to expand, teacher attrition rates start climbing again. There’s a natural cycle of teacher mobility in Colorado, and it seems to be tied to the larger, national economic picture.

These things are important, because it suggests that there are much larger forces at play in teacher retention decisions than whatever education cause du jour receives the blame. Through the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, new teacher evaluations, the expansion of Teach for America, changes in the state’s teacher pension plan, the rise of charter schools, the testing opt-out movement, etc., teacher attrition in Colorado has stayed pretty much the same.

As a quick but related side note, Alderman’s chart reminded me of another chart I’ve seen floating around on the internet in recent days. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what the combination of these two charts may imply for teacher retention (and my college fund) based on the Education Next analysis.

Yikes. There are days—every day, really—that I’m thankful not to be an economist. Still, Alderman’s point is well taken and, at least in my mind, fairly convincing.

There’s one more thing we need to mention in relation to Colorado’s teacher turnover: CDE’s data in this area are weird. To illustrate just how weird their data are, I’ll use the embarrassingly immodest tactic of quoting a previous post of mine:

The state’s calculations include teachers leaving after riding out their final year of employment under PERA’s 110/110 program, teachers on single-year contracts, teachers who were promoted or moved to non-teaching positions in the district, and teachers scooped up as additional losses due to differences in reporting timeframes between the district and the state.

The numbers also include charter school teachers. That matters because, thanks to charters’ independence under Colorado law, many of these teachers are not directly affected by some of the “scariest” reforms cited by reform opponents as causes for the supposed mass exodus—including pushes for lighter, more sensible collective bargaining contracts.

None of this is to say that teacher turnover isn’t an important issue. We obviously need to keep great teachers in the classroom. And, as Alderman states, rates may differ between Colorado districts for a variety of reasons. Yes, in some cases those reasons could include education reform efforts. Still, I think it’s safe to say that this particular “crisis” has been blown a little out of proportion by those looking for political ammunition against education reform.

So let’s pause, take a breath, and put all of this information in context before we start shouting about the failure of education reform in Colorado and painting a complex issue with too broad a brush.