Can Teachers Really Teach Anywhere?

One attractive selling point for the teaching profession is that there are schools everywhere; therefore there are teaching jobs everywhere. But that logic really only applies to first-time teachers. Once a teacher begins her career, she actually becomes very unlikely to teach in a different state.

In a recent paper for the Center for Education Data and Research, Dan Goldhaber, Cyrus Grout, and Nate Brown counted the number of teachers who moved across state lines to continue teaching. (Dan blogged about it here). The authors compiled a dataset of all teachers in the states of Oregon and Washington from 2001 to 2013, and then they counted how many teachers moved to a new school across the border. It turns out not many did–on average, just 0.07 percent of Oregon teachers made a switch into Washington, and just 0.03 percent of teachers in Washington made the reverse switch to Oregon.

But it’s not like teachers are unwilling to move, period. Goldhaber, Grout, and Brown found that Oregon were about 24 times more likely to move within the state than across the border into Washington. Washington teachers were 64 times (!) more likely to move within the state than to cross into Oregon. The ratios were smaller, but still quite large, when they restricted the sample only to teachers working along the border. Even more, teachers were willing to move much longer distances within their state than cross the state line. Across both states, teachers were four times more likely to move 250 miles or more within their own state than they were to make a move of any distrance across the state boundary.

So why are teachers so reluctant to move across state lines? It can’t just be about demographics. It may make sense, in theory, that the female-dominated teaching profession would be filled with workers who prefer to take fewer career risks. But that doesn’t hold much explanatory power here. Nationally, men are only slightly more likely to move across states than women (1.92 versus 1.86 percent). And, although the teaching profession may attract workers who value stability more than other people, that can’t explain teacher attrition rates generally speaking, or why teachers are willing to move so much more often and so much farther within their own state than across their state’s border.

That leaves two likely factors unique to teachers and specific to states. First, each state imposes its own set of teacher licensing requirements that make it hard for teachers to seamlessly pursue jobs in a new state. Although many states have reciprocity agreements, these aren’t always guaranteed and many teachers face burdensome and opaque licensure requirements if they want to move from one state to another.

Second, state pension plans are playing a role here as well. Pensions do not keep early-career teachers in the profession, and it’s impossible for a statewide pension plans to act as a retention incentive for any particular district. But pensions do lock teachers into a particular state. If a teacher intends to remain teaching for her entire career, she’s much better off, retirement-wise, staying in one state the whole time. By making just one move across state lines, teachers can cut their retirement wealth in half. These penalties limit the extent to which teachers can seamlessly transition across state lines.

Regardless of why teachers are unwilling to move across state lines, the data from Washington and Oregon suggest the conventional wisdom is wrong: Teachers may be able theoretically to teach anywhere, but in practice they choose not to.

– Chad Aldeman

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