Turning Over a New Leaf: Better Turnover Figures Make Me Smile

There are a lot of exciting days every year. Christmas, Easter, snow days, and my birthday all spring to mind immediately. But for education nerds, there’s no day more exciting than New Numbers Day. Today, my friends, is that day.

Okay, New Numbers Day was technically April 7, when the Colorado Department of Education released brand-new, more accurate teacher turnover numbers for school districts across the state. But we’re going to talk about it today, and one of the benefits of entirely made-up holidays is that you can have them whenever you want. So there.

Regular readers of my diatribes will remember that I am not a fan of the way CDE has reported teacher turnover in the past. Why? Because the Department included a whole bunch of stuff that created an inaccurate picture of actual turnover in school districts. More specifically, the state’s old calculations included teachers leaving after riding out their final year of employment under PERA’s 110/110 program, the ones scooped up as additional losses due to differences in reporting timeframes between the district and the state,  those on single-year contracts, and others who were promoted or moved to non-teaching positions in the district.

That last part is especially problematic. While I have often argued that not all turnover is bad, folks tend to regard the word as having a negative connotation. Higher turnover is bad, and lower turnover is good. You can understand the concern, then, when those higher turnover figures include people who aren’t actually leaving the school district—many of whom are, in fact, being promoted to non-teaching positions. Including those people in turnover rates—and then using the inflated turnover rates as a political bludgeon—is just silly. We really shouldn’t be penalizing school districts for having good upward mobility or effective leadership tracks.

Still, reform opponents have been historically unconcerned about little things like using inaccurate data to support their positions. Thus, inflated turnover numbers have contributed to big, scary proclamations about statewide teacher exoduses, as well as inaccurate claims about turnover in hotbed districts like Jeffco and Dougco. “You see,” reform opponents howl, “we told you all this reform stuff would be catastrophic!”

When those wild claims are made, people like me have to buckle down and explain why the numbers they rely upon are junk. Again. And again. And again. You know the drill. It’s all very tedious.

Now, though, life will get a bit easier. At the behest of our new commissioner, Richard Crandall, CDE has begun reporting “conditional turnover” as part of its annual spreadsheet on the topic. This figure excludes teachers who switched or were promoted to non-teaching positions in the district— which means we now have an official turnover number that, you know, actually reflects turnover. Woohoo!

The new figures are already making some good waves. In Dougco, for instance, the new figures dropped the district’s teacher turnover rate by more than five percentage points (from 19.72 percent to 14.38 percent). More than a quarter of the teachers previously reported as turnover in Dougco never actually left the district’s employment. In Jeffco, the turnover rate fell from 16.33 percent to 13.48 percent. Nearly one in five teachers previously reported as turnover didn’t leave the district.

At least one local media outlet in Dougco has already picked up on the change and gotten the word out, which is awesome. My hope is that the big dogs will start to do the same when they talk about turnover issues from here on out.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t talk about teacher turnover in Dougco or Jeffco. I’m fully supportive of both districts finding ways to better engage with their teachers and keep as many effective educators as possible. And as happy as I am with CDE’s new reporting, I think there’s even more they could do to clean it up—excluding one-year contract teachers and 110/110 participants from the calculations, for instance.

But this is a huge step in the right direction, and one that I hope brings us a little closer to laying the politically manufactured “turnover crisis” to rest.