Is teacher turnover still a challenge in metro Milwaukee? Latest research says yes…and no

By Jeffrey Schmidt

Can schools in metro Milwaukee and Wisconsin maintain a stable corps of effective educators for the students they serve and the subjects they teach?

The question is a crucial one. Among the factors within a school’s purview that drive student achievement and long term economic outcomes in adulthood, access to high-quality teachers during the K-12 years tops the list.

The question is also top of mind in education and policy circles — both locally and nationally. Media stories and federal data have sounded a steady drum beat of reports of teacher shortages in every state across the U.S. since the end of the Great Recession. Causes and severity of these shortages vary and depend on the locale.

About two years ago, our own research on the teacher workforce in metro Milwaukee pointed to a continuous stream of teachers leaving the profession and a shrinking supply of new teachers to replace them. As recently as September, Wisconsin’s 2017-19 biennial budget was passed with numerous teacher licensure and preparation provisions aimed at clearing a path for more educators to be deployed in classrooms where they are needed most.

But to what extent does teacher attrition continue to drain schools and districts of precious human and financial resources?

Our latest research on this issue set out to answer this and other questions. The report, Stay in school: An update on teacher workforce trends in metro Milwaukee, finds cause for optimism from an aggregate standpoint. Statewide and in the metro Milwaukee region, the downward trend in teacher supply we were seeing two years ago appears to be stabilizing, teacher turnover has slowed down, and entering teachers largely are keeping pace with those who are leaving.

But there’s a “but”. Digging below those aggregate figures, we also find that district by district, the picture is not as rosy. About half of the public school districts in the Milwaukee metro area are seeing their attrition levels rise, and about half have not hired as many teachers as have left in the last two years. And, across the region, those who are leaving tend to be younger and newer to the profession than in years past. Teachers increasingly are leaving early in or midway through their working years, as opposed to staying in the profession through retirement age.

This brings us back to the initial question: Are local schools able to sustainably staff their classrooms with good teachers? Despite the hopeful overall teacher supply trends, what appears to be a pattern of high pre-retirement attrition calls for attention. Not only does it impose significant costs to schools and districts, but it does, in fact, threaten their ability to maintain a stable, high-quality teaching corps or to staff their classrooms at appropriate levels.

This raises equity concerns. National studies have linked high poverty schools to relatively high turnover rates. Moreover, both national research and our database show that attrition rates among minority teachers are higher than overall attrition rates. The result is a higher proportion of inexperienced teachers in schools that serve these student groups, adding fuel to the persistence of achievement gaps.

Overall, our analysis suggests that in addition to considering new policies to make it easier for teachers to enter the workforce, policy makers and school leaders should also focus on potential strategies to improve teacher retention.