“Back (in the late 1980s), the most common teacher in America was a 15-year veteran; two decades later, she was a first-year neophyte.” This quote comes from a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching about the status of teachers, and the stat is from a 2012 study. At first glance, this statistic may seem to represent massive change in the teacher workforce. Certainly attrition has occurred, but that is only part of the story; what underlies these numbers is a larger narrative — one that’s a little less bleak.

So what does this statistic tell us?

“The most common teacher” refers to the value that appears the most often in a set of data (the mode) — in this case, the years of experience held by the most teachers. In 1988, there were more teachers with 15 years of experience (about 100,000) than any other number of years of experience. At that time, there were only about 65,000 teachers with one year of experience. In 2008, there were more teachers in their first year (about 200,000) than any other amount.

Teacher Experience Levels in Public Education

This trend occurred for a few reasons. First, the teaching force grew dramatically in the past two decades. This growth occurred just as the baby-boomer cohort reached retirement, meaning lots of teachers exited the profession after many years of service. The influx of new and replacement teachers resulted in more novice teachers than ever before.

Second, attrition has increased. Teachers are staying in the profession for fewer years than they used to. For example, in 1988, 10 percent of new teachers left the profession after a single year, whereas in 2008, 13 percent did so. These numbers are concerning because turnover generates instability for students, and research has consistently shown that novice teachers are not as effective as more experienced teachers; but we should not assume that schools are filled predominantly with first-year teachers. In fact, there were more teachers with over 25 years of experience in 2008 than in 1988.

What doesn’t this statistic tell us?

To say that there are more first-year teachers than any other single category of experience does not mean that the average teacher had one year of experience in 2008. When we examine the average, we add up all the years of experience from every teacher and divide by the number of teachers. In 2008, teachers had, on average, more than 13 years of experience.

It also does not mean that more than half of teachers had one year of experience in 2008. In fact, only 28 percent of teachers had 5 or fewer years of experience. Still, this is up from 18 percent in 1988.

The Carnegie Foundation raises some important issues related to the upsurge in novice teachers in our schools: It’s costly for districts, time-consuming for principals, and most importantly, potentially harmful to student achievement. But a careful examination of the teacher labor force suggests the issue is nuanced and not necessarily a pandemic.