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Measures of teacher turnover and chronic staffing problems

New Measures of Teacher Turnover Can Reveal Underlying Chronic Staffing Problems in Schools

Jennifer Jellison Holme, Huriya Jabbar, Emily Germain, and John Dinning

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Teacher quality is one of the most important predictors of students’ educational and professional outcomes. But student success can be undermined by teacher turnover. Teacher turnover is particularly high in high-poverty urban schools, with some losing up to one-half of their staff in a single year. The authors term this chronic teacher turnover as instability.

Staff instability can be a significant drain on limited school resources because school leaders must perpetually search for, hire, and train new teachers. Staff instability can also lead to the loss of experienced and effective teachers and disrupt existing social ties and networks of support, leading to the loss of institutional knowledge. This instability can cripple school functioning and prevent improvement, which then can negatively impact student achievement.

Researchers and policymakers commonly measure teacher turnover using an annual turnover rate.  While this measure can be helpful in flagging schools that have experienced recent staffing churn, it does not describe whether schools may be suffering from temporary (or even healthy) turnover or whether they have struggled with deeper turnover problems for years. Long-term measures, by contrast, help illuminate the nuances—and severity—of the turnover problems that schools face over time.

This brief describes a typology of teacher turnover measures and illustrates them with findings from ten years of administrative data in Texas. Measures include both those currently in use as well as new ones developed by the authors. These measures explain different ways in which staff instability can negatively affect schools. They can also help identify schools that suffer from particularly severe staff shortages.

Key Findings

  • Five long-term measures of teacher turnover were conceptualized: chronic instability, cumulative instability, instability entry and exit, “spell” of instability, and episodes of instability (see Figure on next page)
  • Across all measures, high-poverty and high-minority schools had higher rates of turnover compared with low-poverty and low-minority schools. The starkest differences were found in turnover rates were between schools that were rated “unacceptable” versus those rated “exemplary” by the state accountability system.
  • Rural schools experienced the highest rates of chronic instability, or high annual turnover for seven or more years (out of ten).
  • Schools that were high-minority, high-poverty, and rated “unacceptable” were more likely to enter into periods of instability and were more likely to struggle to re-stabilize. High-poverty and high-minority schools experienced longer spells of instability, whereas low-poverty and low-minority schools experienced shorter spells of high turnover. Schools rated “unacceptable” experienced much longer spells of instability.
  • Schools with the highest rates of instability over time (highest chronic and/or cumulative rates; highest number of instability episodes; longest instability spells) have higher concentrations of low-income and minority students.
  • Schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students also experienced multiple forms of instability with longer duration.
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This caption describes the image above.

This figure [1] defines short- and long-term measures of teacher turnover in schools. When the authors applied their long-term measures to Texas data, they found deep inequities across schools in the state.

Policy Implications

The authors’ findings from Texas indicate concerning losses of human capital across all schools over time and particularly troubling disparities in turnover patterns for schools serving low-income and minority students. While the schools struggling most with teacher retention are those most in need of improvement, constant churn can potentially make sustained improvement more difficult. Identifying which schools experience different types of instability may generate more targeted policy solutions. Policymakers and school leaders are urged to consider the following interventions: target scarce funds to the relatively small number of schools experiencing the greatest instability over time; target support to schools that experience chronic instability because these situations require distinct policy remedies; and report different types of turnover rates in accountability reports in order for parents and the public to better understand how their campus is affected by turnover.


1Holme, J.J., Jabbar, H., Germain, E., & Dinning, J. (2017). Rethinking teacher turnover: Longitudinal measures of instability in schools. Educational Researcher 47(1):62-75. Holme and Jabbar contributed equally to the manuscript.

Suggested Citation

Holme, J.J., Jabbar, H., Germain, E., & Dinning, J. (2018). New measures of teacher turnover can reveal underlying chronic staffing problems in schools. PRC Research Brief 3(4). DOI: 10.15781/T2VM43D9H.  

About the Authors

Jennifer Jellison Holme is an associate professor, Huriya Jabbar (jabbar@austin.utexas.edu) is an assistant professor, and Emily Germain is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin. Huriya Jabbar is also a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at UT-Austin. John Dinning was a consultant at The University of Texas at Austin during the preparation of this manuscript and is now a Program Director at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.


The Texas Education Research Center provided access to data. The conclusions of this research do not necessarily reflect the opinion or official position of the Texas Education Research Center, the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Workforce Commission, or the State of Texas. Infrastructure support for the Population Research Center at The University of Texas was provided by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD042849).