The Promise of Older Novices: Teach For America Teachers’ Age of Entry and Subsequent Retention in Teaching and Schools
by Morgaen L. Donaldson — 2012
Background/Context: Increasing teacher retirements and persistently high turnover have ignited interest in teacher recruitment and retention in recent years. Nowhere is the need to understand these issues more urgent than in low-income schools. These schools face especially large challenges in attracting and retaining competent and committed teachers. Such schools often experience high levels of turnover and, as a result, are staffed disproportionately by inexperienced teachers who are generally less effective than their more experienced counterparts. In addition to this educational cost, elevated turnover also generates substantial organizational and financial losses for low-income schools. Professionals working in other careers constitute one potential source of teachers for low-income schools. The proportion of midcareer entrants among first-year teachers nationwide nearly doubled in recent years. Although analysts assert that midcareer entrants bring great commitment to teaching, scant research examines whether they stay in teaching longer than individuals who enter teaching directly after college.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The primary purpose of this study is to examine whether older entrants to teaching are more likely than younger recruits to voluntarily remain in low-income schools and the teaching profession as a whole. I also explore whether older new teachers’ backgrounds differ from those of younger new teachers and whether they are more likely than their younger counterparts to remain in K–12 school-based jobs (i.e., teaching, working as a specialist or administrator). In addition, I examine whether older new teachers who leave the profession have different reasons for doing so than younger new teachers and whether they enter different occupations after teaching.
Research Design: I investigate the questions described above using a sample of over 2,000 Teach For America (TFA) teachers who began their careers in schools serving high proportions of low-income and minority children. The sample for my study is drawn from a census of all teachers enrolled in the 2000, 2001, and 2002 TFA cohorts. These teachers would have accumulated 4, 5, or 6 years of teaching experience if they had taught continually. From 3,283 TFA enrollees in these cohorts, 2,029 individuals (62%) responded to an online survey that gathered data on teachers’ individual characteristics (e.g., subject matter preparation and assignment; demographic information) and, where relevant, the timing of their first departure from their school and the teaching profession. I used discrete-time survival analysis, logistic regression, and chi-square analysis to analyze the data.
Findings/Results: I found that older TFA entrants to teaching had a lower risk than did younger entrants of leaving low-income schools, the teaching profession, and broader school-based roles. I further found that older entrants’ backgrounds differed from younger entrants. Older entrants were significantly more likely than their younger counterparts to be male, to be African American, and to have lived in the locale where they were placed by TFA. Among respondents who left teaching, older entrants’ reasons for doing so differed significantly from those noted by younger entrants. Older entrants to teaching were significantly more likely than younger entrants to cite family or health matters as a very or extremely important factor in their decision to leave. Last, older entrants who left the profession also entered significantly different types of professions than did younger entrants. Most notably, older entrants to teaching were significantly more likely than younger entrants to become a K–12 specialist or administrator after they left the classroom.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Viewed broadly, these findings suggest that older entrants to teaching may prove a promising source of teachers for low-income schools. On all measures, older entrants demonstrated more commitment to low-income schools and the teaching profession than did their younger counterparts. Notably, even though they began their careers in challenging, low-income schools, they left the teaching profession at rates (61.3% in 3 years) that are not that distant from some estimates of attrition of teachers who began their careers in urban schools, some of which were likely less challenging than those where TFA teachers typically work. More broadly, districts seeking to develop human capital across multiple levels of the system might also consider targeting older individuals as a source of new teachers. Not only do these people appear to teach longer, but if they leave teaching, they are more likely than younger entrants to remain in schools in roles other than classroom teacher.
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