Teacher Retention, Mobility, and Attrition: Understanding Terminology
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Teacher Retention, Mobility, and Attrition: Understanding Terminology

December 26, 2019


Teacher retention, mobility, and attrition
are big issues in education today. But what are they, why do they matter, and
what is the language researchers use to define them? Here is a quick overview from REL Central. First, let’s discuss common definitions of
terms researchers use to describe teacher movement. Typically, retention is when a teacher stays
in a position or school. Mobility is when a teacher moves to a different
school or district. And attrition is when a teacher leaves the
profession or the state public school system. More terms you may encounter, that vary in
use, but are often used to describe retention, attrition, and mobility include the following. Movers: teachers who leave a school to teach
elsewhere. Stayers: teachers who remained in their school
from one year to the next. Turnover: the percentage of teachers who leave
in a period of time. And more. Such as…
Transfers: Teachers that transfer to a different school. Churn: The movement of teachers to different
schools or positions. Migration: The movement of teachers to other
schools. Returners: Teachers who left the profession
but have returned. And leavers: Individuals who have left the
teaching profession. You can imagine that retention, attrition,
and mobility are looked at carefully by educators, policymakers, and researchers. But why? While teacher mobility and attrition may result
in positive outcomes, such as better matching of individuals with positions that suit them,
teacher mobility and attrition are also associated with lower student achievement, and additional
costs to schools and districts. In addition, mobility and attrition can create
challenges for ensuring equitable access to quality education when teachers leave low-performing
and economically disadvantaged schools. The potential impact of these issues on student
outcomes makes understanding them all the more important. Luckily, their definitions typically reflect
three factors. Factor one: The position of a teacher and whether a change
in position occurs. Factor two: The location where a teacher works and whether
a change in location occurs. And factor three: The perspective a researcher uses for a study
to describe a teacher’s movement. Depending on if a researcher is studying the
issue from a state, district or school perspective, he or she may see the same teacher movement
as representing attrition, retention, or mobility — or another descriptive term. For example, let’s say Sita, a second-grade
language arts teacher, takes a job in the following school year as a fourth-grade language
arts teacher in the same school district, but at a different school. This move represents a change in position
and location. From the perspective of a researcher studying
the district, this change represents retention because Sita is still in the district. But it also reflects mobility because she
moves from one school and position to another. Additionally, because Sita changes schools,
researchers can define her as a mover. Here’s another example. A fourth-grade math teacher, Ran, takes a
job in another district within the state, but continues to teach fourth-grade math. Ran did not change his position, but he did
change his location. From the perspective of researchers evaluating
teacher movement within the district, Ran’s change can be counted as attrition or turnover
because he left the district. But if researchers focus on the state, Ran’s
mobility can be labeled as retention because he is still a teacher in the state. As you can see, definitions of these terms
are dependent on changes in teacher position and location, and reflect the researcher’s
perspective and focus in a study. So, the next time you see or use these terms,
keep in mind that definitions vary and that it is important to understand the types of
teacher movement being described. We hope this has helped you learn a little
more about teacher movement. Discover more by visiting the REL Central
pages on the IES website or contact us at [email protected]

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