Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

High Attrition from Teach for Australia

Friday January 13, 2012

According to The Age (12 January 2012) nearly half of participants in the fast-track Teach for Australia program are no longer teaching after two years. Only 56% of those who entered the program are still teaching after their initial two-year commitment.

Of the 45 graduates who began the two-year program in 2010, two dropped out in the first year, nine are going into another industry, nine are doing something else in the education field, such as a master’s of teaching, and 25 remain teaching.

This is a very high attrition rate. It far exceeds the attrition rate of new teachers entering the profession through traditional teacher training. Only about 10% of teachers in NSW leave the profession after five years according to the Productivity Commission [ Schools Workforce draft report, p.25]. It says that the separation rate of early career teachers could even be lower in Queensland. The report notes that comparable figures from other states are not available.

Teach for Australia places non-teaching graduates in disadvantaged schools for two years after six weeks of training. It has been allocated $22 million in federal funding. The program is intended to improve results in disadvantaged schools by fast-tracking high achieving graduates who do not have teacher qualifications into teaching in these schools.

The attrition rate from Teach for Australia is even higher than that of its parent program in the United States – Teach for America – which has been heavily criticised because so many leave after their initial commitment. Research published last year in the education journal, Phi Delta Kappan, shows that 40% of teachers in Teach for America left after two years. It also shows that 72% left after five years.

Strictly speaking, the attrition rate from Teach for Australia should be compared with the attrition rate of traditionally trained new teachers in disadvantaged schools, rather than all schools. However, comparable data does not appear to be available.

It would be surprising if the turnover rate of new teachers in disadvantaged schools is as high as the 44% rate in Teach for Australia after two years. In the United States, about 30% of new teachers leave the profession after five years according to research published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. The turnover rate is 50% higher in high poverty schools than in affluent schools. If the same ratios apply in Australia, the rate for disadvantaged schools could be expected to be much lower than the Teach for Australia rate, based on the Productivity Commission figures on average turnover after five years.

Far from improving results for disadvantaged students, the high attrition rate from Teach for Australia could be compounding the problems of high teacher turnover in these schools and could even worsen results.

High turnover creates major problems for those schools that most need stability and continuity. They end up constantly trying to recruit new teachers to replace those who leave. This disrupts classroom continuity, student/teacher and professional relationships, planning and monitoring of student improvement and productive relationships with parents.

Research studies show that high teacher turnover rates reduce student achievement, especially for low achieving students. For example, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students in primary school grades with higher teacher turnover score lower in English and mathematics. The harmful effects were two to four times larger in English in high poverty schools than in more affluent schools and up to two times larger for mathematics.

The Phi Delta Kappan study said that the high level of turnover in Teach for America “is very problematic from the perspective of low-income schools and their students”. It concluded:

Given TFA’s commitment to closing the achievement gap — a goal shared by many other fast-track preparation programs — this revolving door transfer of teachers from the schools that most need skilled, experienced teachers remains a serious problem.

The forthcoming evaluation of Teach for Australia will be awaited with much interest.

Trevor Cobbold

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