Study Finds Urban Schools Often Neglect Top Teachers While Keeping Weaker Ones

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A new study finds that urban schools are systematically neglecting their best teachers, losing tens of thousands every year even as they keep many of their lowest-performing teachers indefinitely—with disastrous consequences for students, schools, and the teaching profession.

The study by TNTP, a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all students get excellent teachers, documents the real teacher retention crisis in America’s schools: not only a failure to retain enough teachers, but a failure to retain the rightteachers.  The report was funded in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The Irreplaceables, released at an event featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle, and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, spans four urban school districts encompassing 90,000 teachers and 1.4 million students. It focuses on the experiences of the “Irreplaceables”: teachers so successful at advancing student learning that they are nearly impossible to replace. Schools rarely make a strong effort to keep these teachers despite their success—and rarely usher unsuccessful teachers out.

As a result, the best and worst teachers leave urban schools at strikingly similar rates. The nation’s 50 largest districts lose approximately 10,000 Irreplaceables each year. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are less effective at advancing academic progress than the average first-year teacher.

“America’s best teachers are truly irreplaceable,” said Secretary Duncan. “I’ve said that when it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously. But TNTP’s report documents in painful detail that school leaders are doing far too little to nurture, retain, and reward great teachers—and not nearly enough to identify and assist struggling teachers. Our teachers, who play such a crucial role in the lives of children, deserve a profession built on respect and rigor. And our children deserve—and need—to learn from those irreplaceable teachers.”

The study attributes negligent retention patterns to three major causes:

1. Inaction by school principals. Less than 30 percent of Irreplaceables plan to leave for reasons beyond their school’s control. Simple strategies, like public recognition for a job well done, boost their plans to stay by as many as six years. Yet two-thirds indicated that no one had encouraged them to return for another year. Similarly, principals rarely try to counsel out low performers, even though replacing them with a brand-new teacher will immediately achieve better academic results 75 percent of the time.

2. Poor school cultures and working conditions. Schools that retain more Irreplaceables have strong cultures where teachers work in an atmosphere of mutual respect, leaders respond to poor performance, and great teaching is the priority. Turnover rates among Irreplaceables were 50 percent higher in schools lacking these traits.

3. Policies that impede smarter retention practices. A number of policy barriers hamper principals from making smarter retention decisions. Because of inflexible, seniority-dominated compensation systems, for example, 55 percent of Irreplaceables earn a lower salary than the average low-performing teacher.

The report notes that current retention patterns stymie school turnaround efforts and prevent the teaching profession from earning the prestige it deserves. It offers two major recommendations:

1. Make retention of Irreplaceables a top priority. Districts should aim to keep more than 90 percent of their Irreplaceables annually, monitor and improve school working conditions, pay the best teachers what they’re worth and create new career pathways that extend their reach.

2. Strengthen the teaching profession with higher expectations. Leaders at all levels should set a new baseline standard for effectiveness: Teachers who cannot teach as well as the average first-year teacher should be considered ineffective and dismissed or counseled out (unless they are first-year teachers). Policymakers should change teacher hiring and layoff policies that discourage schools from enforcing higher expectations.

“Our schools should be obsessed with keeping their best teachers.  But today it appears that they are almost completely oblivious to them,” said TNTP President Tim Daly. “It’s degrading to teachers and their profession. The challenge now is to address both sides of this crisis: the neglect of our best teachers, and the indifference to performance that keeps unsuccessful teachers in the classroom for too long.”

For more on the report, click here.

About TNTP

TNTP strives to end the injustice of educational inequality by providing excellent teachers to the students who need them most and by advancing policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom. A national nonprofit organization founded by teachers, TNTP is driven by the knowledge that effective teachers have a greater impact on student achievement than any other school factor. In response, TNTP develops customized programs and policy interventions that enable education leaders to find, develop and keep great teachers. Since its inception in 1997, TNTP has recruited or trained approximately 48,000 teachers—mainly through its highly selective Teaching Fellows programs—benefiting an estimated 8 million students. TNTP has also released a series of acclaimed studies of the policies and practices that affect the quality of the nation’s teacher workforce, most recently including The Widget Effect (2009) andTeacher Evaluation 2.0 (2010). Today TNTP is active in more than 25 cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Oakland, among others.