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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Have we 'mistaken the symptom for the problem'?*: Exploring issues of early career teacher retention and attrition

Dr Jackie Manuel
Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

The true extent of beginning teacher attrition in Australia, and the factors driving teachers' decision to resign, are areas deserving further investigation. (DEST, 2002: 19)

An International Challenge - Teacher Retention

Rising rates of attrition amongst what may be termed 'early career ' or 'beginning' teachers are of increasing concern to educationalists throughout the Western world. Of such magnitude is the problem in the USA, for example, that a 2003 report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future observed that "the real school staffing problem is teacher retention." (NCTAF, 2003: 8). Early career attrition, the report warns, "is the leak in the bucket" and "has been getting worse" (NCTAF, 2003: 10).

The once bedrock assumption that teaching was a long-term career for those entering the profession is challenged by the assertion that teaching is increasingly a transitional and "revolving door occupation with relatively high flow-ins, through, and out of schools" (Ingersoll, 2002: 42-43). Data gathered from across the USA shows that up to 40% of teachers, and in some regions more than 40%, are leaving the profession within the first three years of employment.

A similar study conducted by the OECD (McGaw, 2002) has drawn to the attention of the international educational community the seriousness of the problems of supply, demand, retention, and attrition.

We have yet, in Australia, to address this very same issue in any systematic, open and focused manner.

The Australian Context

While we do have State and territory data on resignation rates from the profession, this data is aggregated: it does not tell us who is leaving, at what stage of their career they have resigned, where they are going to, if they intend returning to teaching, or why they have resigned. Where such data exists, it is difficult to access or it is partial, as in, for example, the recent Review of Teacher Education in New South Wales, the Ramsey Review.

Even a recent DEST-funded report by the Quality Teacher Programme, An Ethic of Care: Effective Programmes for Beginning Teachers, emphasised the lack of data on attrition rates in Australia, despite the increasingly urgent challenge of teacher attrition across the nation.

Stephens and Moskowitz (1997) report that attrition rates among new teachers in Pacific Rim countries are often five times higher than those of more experienced teachers. Gold (1996) suggests 25% do not teach more than two years.

Figures for 1995, 1996, and 1997, supplied by Education Queensland, suggest that an average of 20% of Queensland graduates appointed to Government schools leave within the first five years of teaching. This figure may well apply nationally, however, it is very difficult to obtain equivalent data for other Australian states. (DEST, 2002: 19)

Exit surveys for resigning teachers, for example, do not seem to be a matter of policy, although the NSW Department of Education and Training is presently constructing such an exit survey to be adopted in the future. Unless and until resignation rates are disaggregated through this and other research instruments - instruments that enable us to identify early career resignees from those who are retiring, leaving later in their career, or taking time out to pursue other experiences - then we will continue to rely on piecemeal information about the changing profile of the teaching profession. Without an accurate picture of the true rates of attrition and the reasons for this attrition, our capacity to address the challenges of preparing and retaining qualified, effective, and satisfied teachers in our schools remains thwarted.

Investigating the Problem: The University of Sydney Study

Teaching in the 21st century is not the routine occupation it may have been 40 years ago.
(DEST, 2002: 21)

Currently underway at the University of Sydney is a large-scale, longitudinal study which aims to identify the forces and conditions that lead to teacher retention, and the forces and conditions that drive early career-teacher attrition in Australia. Most studies in this area, to date, have focused on general survey data (eg. Hatton and Laws, 1993) and have not tracked the experiences of beginning teachers, from pre-service through the early years of employment, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

In addition to clear data on resignation rates of early career teachers, we need also to explore, through narratives and interviews, for instance, the 'factors driving teachers' decision to resign' (DEST, 2002: 19). The work of researchers, such as Darling-Hammond (2000) in the United States, has demonstrated the powerfully positive effect on retention rates of high quality support for beginning teachers. Similarly, the University of Sydney project may offer valuable insights into the ways in which we strengthen policy and practice to stem the flow of newly-appointed teachers from schools.

In Their Own Words

All stories become useful when they inform the telling of another's tale, when they become part of the chain of communications about teaching and learning. (Dyson, 2002)

To hear the voices of new teachers, through this and other similar research, is a necessary step towards addressing the challenges facing the teaching profession over the coming decade. It is well recognised that the beginning teacher experience, particularly the experience of the first year of teaching, is "the most heavily weighted factor influencing teacher retention." (DEST, 2002: 19)

What is clear from the research completed at the University of Sydney, thus far, is that over 90% of newly-qualified teachers embark upon their teaching career with a long-term vision of teaching for at least 10 years (Manuel, 2002; Manuel and Brindley, 2002). Yet, within such a relatively short period of time, such long-terms goals are, for a disturbingly high proportion of new teachers, undermined and called into serious question. Exploring with a finely-honed lens the colour, texture, and shape of the beginning teacher's experience, between graduation or the first teaching appointment, and after one, two, or three years of service, is one means of gathering more insight into the nature of the retention and attrition phenomenon.

In the larger scheme of teacher supply and demand, this research will go some way towards ensuring we do not continue to mistake "the symptom for the problem." (NCTAF, 2003: 6)

We know that there is a pleasing upturn in the number of people choosing to enter pre-service teacher education programs in Australia. Enrolments in teacher education courses are also healthy in terms of the calibre of school-leavers and others choosing to teach. Strong media campaigns and financial incentives, such as scholarships, have made a substantial impact on recruitment into teacher education programmes.

It is imperative that such recruitment continues to flourish. It is also imperative that the personal, professional, and financial capital required to enter the teaching profession is not leached away through increasing rates of early career attrition.

Without a highly qualified, satisfied, experienced and reasonably stable teaching workforce, we risk an uncertain future in terms of the quality of our children's education.

* National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (2003) No Dream Denied: A pledge to America's children. http://www.tc.edu/nctaf, p. 6.


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Subject Headings

Education research
Educational planning
Teacher training
Teachers' employment