Teacher Retention in DC: Unpacking the Numbers

Any teacher will tell you that teaching is both challenging and rewarding. Some of the biggest challenges can be found in urban school districts, where the combination of administrative pressures and student needs often create what feels like a no-win situation for teachers. This problem is reflected in high turnover rates for both urban teachers and administrators.

While the national average for departing teachers is 16% annually, the rate for large US urban school districts is 19%. But according to findings in a 2018 study commissioned by the DC State Board of Education, education researcher Mary Levy found that 25% of the classrooms in America’s capital city lose their teachers to churn every year. While 7% move to other teaching positions within the district, nearly one in five leave DC Public Schools altogether. In a separate report from the DC auditor’s office, principal turnover was found to be 25% annually, matching the national average. However, a closer inspection of the data shows that principals are more likely to resign from schools in Wards 5 and 8, where those communities’ socioeconomic pressures are far greater. The auditor also reported that most departing principals were likely to seek a similar position with more realistic leadership expectations.

The Promise of (Good) Policy

Why do these problems seem so much greater in DCPS than in other large urban districts?

Many teachers point to policies implemented in the last decade that were meant to effect radical district turnaround with sharp staffing cuts and a single-minded emphasis on standardized testing. These turnaround policies also emphasized merit-based salaries over tenure, inviting more competitive candidates who tended to be less familiar with the give-and-take of a healthy learning community or, in the case of principals, less patient with the gradual process of school turnaround (which generally takes between four and seven years).

By the end of 2018, taking into account the data presented by Levy’s study and the auditor’s report, the SBOE began to examine how the district might improve teacher and principal retention, exploring how these might be influenced by factors like high-stakes testing, better teacher support and hiring, improving school climate, and more efficient use of data and research. Ultimately, these strategies will also address the central reason why any school exists: effectively addressing the students’ educational needs.

Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families or unsafe neighborhoods in DC and other urban areas are often coping with trauma, economic uncertainty, and other stressors — and a stable, welcoming school community could positively affect the quality of their education and the trajectory of their lives. They need and deserve caring, capable, and committed adults who will be a constant, rather than a revolving door of school personnel.

A Recipe for Retention

In the years that Center for Inspired Teaching has been working with schools in DC, we’ve focused on filling our city’s obvious need for engagement-based education. From the first week of our Residency program for new teachers to professional development that veteran teachers are pursuing through our Institute, we train educators to help students find personal relevance and joy in learning — which we believe will go a long way toward solving the teacher retention problem by helping educators find relevance and joy in their own work.

Along the way, we provide as much support as our Fellows and Teacher Leaders need, imbuing them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to enhance or even create their own learning communities in the schools where they work. We’ve been doing this for long enough to track teacher retention, and our data shows that after five years, 80% of our Residents are still teaching in the classroom. Compared to the high turnover rates discussed above, that record speaks for itself.

If you’re ready to join Inspired Teaching’s Residency program, the remaining application deadlines for our 2019 Summer Institute are February 10, March 10, and April 7.


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