We are an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.Learn More.

Retaining Teachers: The View from Washington, D.C.

FutureEd Director Thomas Toch testified before the District of Columbia City Council on Dec. 4 about principal and teacher retention in the public schools in the nation's capital. Below is his testimony.

Educator attrition plagues every city in the country. A recent study of a dozen urban school districts finds turnover rates ranging from 36 percent to 57 percent among teachers in their first five years in the profession.

Attrition is highest among these early career teachers, and among teachers working in low-income neighborhoods, of which the District of Columbia has many.

The work that teachers and principals do in urban settings is demanding, often extremely stressful. As you know, many students bring substantial challenges to school every day.

The main drivers of teacher attrition are lack of principal support, unsafe working conditions, lack of professional opportunities, and insufficient compensation. And teachers often leave to relocate with spouses, rear children, or change careers. These latter steps, by the way, result in instances of high teacher turnover in Washington’s elite private schools, which also remove teachers for poor performance.

It is important to note that not all attrition is equal.

Because DCPS now has a meaningful teacher evaluation system, it can overlay teacher attrition on teacher quality. And the results are encouraging.

Between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, for example, attrition was 49 percent among the district’s “minimally effective” teachers, while only 6 percent among its “highly effective” educators, who made up 36 percent of the DCPS teaching force that year, compared to 5 percent for “minimally effective” teachers.

[Read More: A Policymaker's Playbook for Transforming Education]

It’s also helpful to break down a single year’s worth of teacher attrition.

We know, for example, that 26 percent of DCPS teachers employed during the 2016-17 school year didn’t return to the same school in 2017-18. But 2 percent of those teachers were fired for poor performance; another 5.5 percent left voluntarily after receiving less-than-satisfactory performance ratings; and 12 percent moved to other DCPS schools through voluntary transfers or promotions.

That means that only 6.5 percent of the district’s effective teachers exited the district voluntarily that year. Although it’s not great for a school to lose over a quarter of its teachers in a single year for any reason, these DCPS statistics suggest that to a significant extent, attrition is working for rather than against students.

This is in part because attrition is less of a problem when schools can replace departing teachers with stronger educators, as is the case in this city. As Jim Wyckoff of the University of Virginia writes in a paper released this week, “what might first appear to be relatively high turner among DCPS teachers is largely driven by the turnover of low-performing teachers, whose exit improves student achievement.”

DCPS has implemented a number of best practices to enhance the recruitment and retention of teachers: starting the annual hiring cycle earlier in the school year; recruiting nationally; implementing a more rigorous hiring process, a meaningful annual evaluation system, and a revolutionary school-based professional-development system that signal the district’s commitment to quality instruction; establishing a path to professional advancement through a career ladder and teacher leadership opportunities; increasing compensation; and rewarding talent.

These steps have largely taken two major sources of teacher attrition—a lack of professional opportunities and insufficient compensation—off the table in DCPS.

[Read More: Elevating Teaching Lifts a City's Schools]

DCPS has used substantial bonuses to incentivize high-performing teachers to work in difficult neighborhoods—a universal challenge in urban public education. DCPS’s prior, union-backed practice of seniority-based staffing, still in wide use throughout the nation, incentivized the flow of top teachers out of such neighborhoods. Teachers used their seniority to seize jobs in more attractive schools and neighborhoods.

The fact that the teacher attrition rates among DCPS and charter school teachers are nearly identical suggests that it’s not the DCPS IMPACT system that is forcing teachers to leave, since charter schools don’t use the IMPACT system.

If I may say so, the Washington Teachers Union's relentless opposition to IMPACT is deeply ironic: DCPS’s teacher career ladder, teacher leadership opportunities, teacher feedback system, teacher recognition system, and the district’s substantially increased teacher compensation—the very things the union says it wants for teachers, and the things that do the most to lower attrition rates—are all dependent on knowing who’s doing a good job in the classroom and who isn’t.

Notably, DCPS teacher satisfaction is significantly higher today than a decade ago. Last year, 81 percent said they liked their work.

We need to continue to bring down attrition rates and pursue other much-needed improvements throughout the city’s education sector. But we also need to be clear-eyed about the nature of the retention challenge. And we need to continue to pursue performance-based policies that have produced higher PARCC scores, higher NAEP scores, rising enrollments, and increasing public satisfaction in an urban education landscape that a generation ago was one on the nation’s worst.