More teachers left the school districts where they work last year than at any point in the past 15 years, according to new data from the Colorado Department of Education.

And individual districts have seen significant fluctuations in how many teachers stay in their districts from year to year. This is especially true in rural districts and in areas where dramatic policy changes have gone into effect in recent years.

Chalkbeat took a look at trends in districts’ teacher turnover in recent years and compiled a database including every district in the state. Here are some of the findings.

Search for your district in Chalkbeat’s database of district-level teacher turnover rates.

Data source: Colorado Department of Education. Data reported as of Dec. 1 of each year.

Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Districts can’t entirely control when and why teachers leave

The rate of statewide turnover has hovered between 12 and 16 percent over the the past 15 years. This is the first year it has crept above 17 percent, but rates close to 16 percent were common in the early 2000s.

The teacher workforce has grown from approximately 42,000 teachers to closer to 51,000 during that time.

Teacher attrition is often caused by conditions outside of districts’ control, said Robert Reichardt, a consultant with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates who has studied teacher workforce issues in Colorado. He said those factors include the average age of teachers (the youngest and oldest teachers are more likely to leave their jobs) and the state of the economy (harder economic times, such as the years following the Great Recession of 2008, mean less turnover because jobs are harder to find).

State cuts to education funding and local budget woes also show up in individual districts’ attrition numbers. In Westminster, for instance, a sudden spike in teacher turnover in 2007-08 is directly related to the district’s closing of five schools that year to address budget woes.

A number of new state education laws and initiatives have gone into effect over the past decade, including a new accountability system and new state standards. Statewide turnover has crept up each year since the 2010 passage of Senate Bill 191, which required more in-depth evaluations for the state’s teachers and principals and tied evaluations to measures of student growth.

Teacher Turnover Rates in Colorado's 20 Largest School Districts

Closely-watched Front Range districts have higher turnover now — but they’re not alone

About the data The Colorado Department of Education collects information about personnel turnover each year. The data for the 2014-15 school year includes transitions made as of December 1. This set of data does not count teachers who moved between schools within a district as having “turned over.” It does include teachers who have retired, returned to school, or switched jobs within a district. A teacher who has become a principal, for instance, shows up as having “turned over.”

In Douglas County, Jefferson County, and the Thompson school district, where more conservative school boards riled some staff, students, and community members with new policies, more teachers are leaving the districts than in the past.

In Douglas County, the biggest jump was between 2012-13, when 13 percent of teachers left, and 2013-14, when 17 percent left.

In Jefferson County, teacher turnover increased from 10 percent to 15 percent between 2013-14 and 2014-15. And in the Thompson, the teacher turnover rate jumped from 13 percent to 20 percent in the same timeframe.

Those jumps in some of the state’s largest districts helped push up the state’s overall rate this year.

But districts with new boards aren’t alone in seeing upticks. The fast-growing Adams 12 and Adams 50 districts have also seen their turnover rates increase, while the Brighton and Falcon districts have seen major fluctuations over that same period.

And rates in all Jefferson and Douglas Counties are still lower than in more urban and less-affluent districts.

Data source: Colorado Department of Education. Data reported as of Dec. 1 of each year.
Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Rural schools have the highest and the lowest rates of teacher turnover

School districts with the highest and the lowest rates of turnover were in rural Colorado.

The Agate district in the Eastern Plains, the only district with a zero percent turnover rate, also bears the distinction of being the smallest district in the state.

Meanwhile, the tiny Karval district had the highest rate in the state. More than 80 percent of its teachers left this academic year after the district closed an online school that had enrolled a significant portion of its students.

The small size of the districts means that each teacher’s departure registers larger than in a bigger district. And in districts with very few schools, teachers don’t have other options within the district.

But Paula Stephenson, the Executive Director of the Colorado Rural Caucus, said that teacher recruitment and retention are perennial problems for small rural districts. Many teachers who do come eventually leave for higher pay and larger communities.

She said that in rural districts with higher retention rates, superintendents have often recruited local talent and people who are interested in a more rural lifestyle.

The state’s rural caucus has named teacher retention and recruitment as a major priority this year.

Some districts are trying to address high turnover rates with new policies and pay scales

The highest turnover rate among the 20 largest school districts in the state is in the Harrison school district, near Colorado Springs, where close to a third of teachers have left the district in each of the past three school years. The district’s teachers’ salaries have been based on evaluations and academic progress, not time on the job, since 2010.

Now Harrison officials are considering adding longevity pay for teachers who have been with the district for five or more years. “We want our talent to stay with us,” said district spokeswoman Christine Lyle.

Lyle said that the district employs more Teach For America corps members than some neighboring districts, and that some, but not all, of those teachers stay on for longer than their two-year commitment. She said the district’s proximity to a military base also contributes to high teacher mobility.

Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools is focusing on reducing principal turnover, which officials say is tied to teacher turnover. The district has also started using “voluntary teacher turnover” — teachers who are leaving not because they were fired or promoted — as an indicator of schools’ quality. DPS is also planning to increase financial incentives for teachers who work in high-needs schools, which have the highest rates of turnover.

Officials say not all turnover is a bad thing and tie high departure rates to low scores on evaluations

DPS reported that last year, teachers with higher scores on its LEAP evaluation system were less likely to leave.

Douglas County school officials made a similar claim. “Higher turnover in the Ineffective and Partially Effective categories allows us the opportunity to get the best teachers in front of our students,” said Paula Hans, the district’s spokesperson, in an email. She said that more than 90 percent of teachers rated highly effective or effective have stayed with the district, while a third of teachers rated partially effective and all of those rated ineffective have left.

These evaluation systems have been greeted with mixed reviews by the state’s teachers. The teacher TELL survey found that teachers were skeptical of new evaluation systems, though attitudes varied in different districts.

And from an economic perspective, turnover isn’t all bad for districts. While pension plans incentivize teachers to stay in their posts for longer periods of time, “the reality is that new teachers are cheaper than old teachers,” said Reichardt.

Data source: Colorado Department of Education. Data reported as of Dec. 1 of each year.
Credits: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

Districts with high poverty rates have higher rates of teacher turnover

School districts with the highest rates of students eligible for subsidized school lunches had higher rates of turnover than districts with the lowest poverty rates.

“The teachers with the least experience are often put into the toughest settings,” said Bruce Caughey, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He said that new teachers are not prepared by their training for the challenges that face them in schools with the neediest students. Schools with higher poverty rates are also more likely to be the targets of turnaround efforts that involve replacing teachers.

The Charter School Institute had a higher rate of turnover than most school districts, but it includes only a fraction of the state’s charter schools

The new state data does not separate out charter schools authorized by districts, which make up the bulk of the state’s charter schools. It does include the state’s Charter School Institute, which currently has 34 charter schools throughout the state. The CSI’s turnover rate was 36 percent in 2014-15 and 48 percent in 2013-14.

Institute Executive Director Ethan Hemming said that the rate has fluctuated as the Institute has added and removed schools.

Hemming said that the fact that charters do not have to follow district or union rules about hiring or firing teachers may be a factor in the high turnover rates, and that leaders should acknowledge and address high rates of attrition.

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