Study Snapshot: Within-Year Teacher Turnover in Head Start and Children's Development
Study Snapshot: Within-Year Teacher Turnover in Head Start and Children's Development

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Within-Year Teacher Turnover in Head Start and Children’s Development

Study: "Within-Year Teacher Turnover in Head Start and Children’s Development"
Author: Anna J. Markowitz (University of Virginia)

This study was presented at the AERA 2019 Annual Meeting, April 5-9, Toronto, Canada. (Session: Early Childhood Education and the Transition to Kindergarten.) A copy of the working paper is available online at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development

Main Finding:

  • Within-year teacher turnover in Head Start—which happened at a rate of about 10 percent in both of the two years analyzed—is markedly and negatively associated with children’s language and literacy development, and with their behavioral and self-regulation skills.


  • Using two waves of data from the nationally representative Head Start Family and Children Experiences Survey (FACES) conducted by the U.S. Department Health and Human Services, this study provides the first national estimate of the relationship between within-year teacher turnover and children’s development in Head Start. It is the first national study to examine the relationship between early childhood education teacher turnover and the outcomes of low-income children.
  • Study author Anna J. Markowitz, a research assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, found an annual within-year turnover rate of 10 percent in both 2006 and 2009—more than twice the rate of within-year turnover in K-12 settings found in a separate 2018 study that focused on North Carolina. Head Start serves nearly a million children a year, indicating that about 100,000 children do not have a fixed teacher throughout the program year.
  • Data from the 2006 and 2009 survey years were used for Markowitz’s main analysis. The methodology of the most recent FACES survey (2014) was redesigned in substantial ways, so Markowitz did not use data from it in her primary analysis, though analyses that included these data found similar, but stronger, results. Data from the 2014 survey indicated within-year teacher turnover rate in Head Start that year was 17 percent. 
  • Markowitz found that the mid-year turnover rate was meaningfully and negatively associated with children’s language, literacy, and socioemotional development by the end of the Head Start year. Turnover was associated with smaller gains in pre-writing skills and vocabulary, and lower levels of teacher-reported positive behaviors, compared to children who did not experience mid-year teacher turnover.
  • Markowitz noted that the strength of the association equals about 14 percent of the income-based achievement gap in reading, 27 percent of the white-Hispanic achievement gap, and 47 percent of the white-achievement gap. “This suggests that for policymakers hoping to leverage Head Start as a tool to support school readiness and close early achievement gaps, addressing teacher turnover should be a priority,” Markowitz said.
  • Markowitz did not find associations between turnover and children’s mathematics skills. This may be because, on average, Head Start classrooms in 2006 and 2009 spent much more time on language and literacy skills than on mathematics skills, so the disjunction created by turnover was less salient. It may also be because children build language and literacy skills particularly in relational contexts—through conversation and shared storytelling, for example—meaning that a disrupted teacher-child relationship is more salient in the activities used to build these skills.
  • Markowitz noted that the association between teacher turnover and social and behavioral outcomes should be interpreted with caution, because social and behavioral outcomes were teacher-reported (rather than directly assessed or parent-reported). Controlling for children’s behavior as rated at the beginning of the year by the eventually turning-over teacher likely introduces measurement error, according to Markowitz. However, the association between turnover and children’s social and behavioral outcomes is negative and large across nearly all estimated models, suggesting this is an important area for future research.
  • That said, even if the finding that children who experienced teacher turnover were rated as systemically worse behaved does not represent a causal link, it may still have important implications, said Markowitz. If teacher turnover leads to perceptions of children as badly behaved, regardless of the children’s actual behavior, it may still negatively influence children’s preschool experiences and broader long-term development.
  • To get a better understanding of the potential role of the within-year replacement teacher, Markowitz compared the characteristics of turning-over teachers to staying teachers and found no significant differences in race, education, experience, or age. This suggests that associations between turnover and children’s development are likely not only due to children’s experiences with the turning-over teacher, but also stem from the disruption of turnover itself and its aftermath.
  • “It is likely that between-year teacher turnover also influences children, so this study probably understates the total damage of churn in the early child education workforce on young children’s development,” said Markowitz.
  • Given that some turnover will always exist in Head Start settings, Markowitz stressed that it is important to consider how programs can facilitate a successful transition for incoming replacement teachers. “There is currently no research on how to mitigate the effects of within-year turnover in the early childhood education setting,” she said. “This study suggests that such research is warranted.”
  • As for the factors driving teacher turnover, Markowitz noted that studies on K-12 educators suggest that center climate and leadership are likely candidates. Prior research on early childhood educators also highlights the role of compensation and benefits, particularly access to health insurance, as additional factors.
  • “Investments in early education will be wasted without parallel investment in the early education workforce,” said Markowitz. “If early childhood educators continue to leave the profession, not only will investments in these teachers’ knowledge and skills be lost, but children may be harmed developmentally by the loss of a teacher they care about.”

To talk to the study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, (202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell); Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, (202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell).

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.