Attrition Report Ignores Serious ‘Brain Drain’ Among K-12 Teachers

The news that fewer North Carolina public school teachers have quit their jobs is a silver lining on a dark cloud of the teacher recruitment and retention pipeline. It is good news that deserves celebrating, but it is hardly an indicator of clear skies ahead.

According to a report about teacher attrition prepared for the State Board of Education this week, the fact only 7.5 percent of teachers have left the public schools to work in another industry or state is seen as an indicator of rising job satisfaction among teachers. It’s reasonable to draw that conclusion, but this is not a significant victory.

There are other factors to consider in the teacher pipeline such as early retirements and a dwindling number of new teachers entering the profession.

For example, not included in attrition rate are teachers who retired. The data shows a sharp spike to about 22 percent in the number of teachers “no longer employed by NC Public Schools” when teachers hit 27 years of service. Teachers reach full retirement age at 30 years, but there’s a disincentive in the state’s pay scale to continue teaching to year 30 or beyond.


The state pay scale for teachers levels off the salary at 15 years of service at $50,000 for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no National Board certification. That plateau lasts until year 25 when the salary is increased to $52,000. This is the base salary paid by the state. Many districts, like Wake County Public School System, increase pay with local supplements which trend with the state scale.

What’s more, teachers can retire at age 50 with 20 years of service to receive reduced benefits. Teachers who started teaching at age 22 would be at 27 years of service by age 50. These are professionals who have 17 years until they reach the age for full Social Security retirement benefits. In other words, they are leaving the profession while they still have plenty of years of their working lives left.

This is a terrible “brain drain” on our public education system. The people with the most expertise and those who can best mentor the next generation of teachers are leaving at a much earlier age than they might if the pay scale compensated their expertise appropriately. This needs to change, and the responsibility rests with the General Assembly.

The other factor to consider is there are fewer college students entering teacher preparation programs nationwide, but especially in North Carolina. Despite a recent uptick of 6 percent in program enrollment in the UNC system’s colleges of education, the downward trend has led to 4,500 fewer students annually learning to become teachers. It should also be noted that enrollment is an indicator of interest, but graduation and licensure are true measures of the state’s ability to replace its retiring teacher workforce.

Based on numbers in the teacher attrition report, the state isn’t adequately replacing its teacher workforce. In fact, there’s a severe shortage of teachers across the state in large urban and small rural districts alike. The shortages occur for different reasons, but the effect of having a temporary teacher in a classroom is still the same.

The report indicated that in the 2018-19 school year there were 1,562.3 instructional vacancies across the state on the first day of school, and by the 40th day of school, or about the end of the first marking period, that number had only been reduced by only 7.3 teachers. The largest area of need was in elementary school with 603.7 vacancies, followed by exception children (special education) at 158.6 vacancies.

This is unsustainable, and the responsibility to fix this is in the hands of the General Assembly.

The legislature has increased salaries, but when adjusted for inflation teachers are earning less than they did in 2009. Teachers also used to receive a small annual increase in pay known as a “step” increase because they moved up one “step” in the salary schedule for each year of service. Well, at year 15, as mentioned above, those step increases stop for 10 years. They have also lost increases for longevity and master\’s degrees. 

The salary schedule is a major hurdle for current and future teachers. It is hastening the exit of the state’s most experienced teachers and it keeps many potential teachers away from the profession. Of all the funding issues facing North Carolina’s public education system, this is the most critical one to resolve.

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