Testimony: How to Retain Teacher Talent in the District of Columbia

FutureEd Director Thomas Toch presented written testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia on December 8, 2023, addressing principal and teacher retention in the District of Columbia public education sector.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Thomas Toch. I am director of FutureEd, a non-partisan education policy center at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. We do a lot of research on the teaching profession nationally.

Educators’ work in low-income urban communities is demanding and often stressful and urban school systems have long struggled with teacher attrition. Even before the coronavirus shut down the nation’s schools and added to teachers’ demands, a study of 16 urban school districts reported that between 44 percent to 74 percent of teachers leave their school district in their first five years in the profession.

The main drivers of teacher attrition are lack of principal support, unsafe working conditions, lack of professional opportunities and insufficient compensation. The District of Columbia Public Schools has taken several steps in recent years to attract and retain effective teachers, doing what research says pays the biggest dividends for students. As a result, the percentage of DCPS teachers staying in their schools year-to-year increased from 68 percent at the onset of mayoral control of the city’s public schools in 2010 to 79 percent last school year. (Across the city’s 66 public charter school agencies, 62 percent of teachers returned to their schools for the 2023-23 school year.)

Before pointing to some of the best practices that DCPS has adopted to improve teacher retention, it’s worth noting that merely measuring how many teachers are in the same school from one year to the next isn’t the most helpful way to think about educator attrition. Some types of “attrition” are good for both teachers and students.

Consider DCPS teacher turnover between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. Twenty-six percent of the school system’s teachers left their schools at the end of 2016-17. 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 in many instances put them in instructional leadership roles.

That means that only 6.5 percent of the district’s effective or highly effective teachers exited the district voluntarily that year (between last school year and the current year, the rate was 5.3 percent). And DCPS generally has been able to recruit stronger replacements for teachers removed for low performance. Researchers from the University of Virginia and Stanford found that replacement teachers produced an average of 4.5 months of additional annual student learning in math and 4.1 additional months of learning in reading.

DCPS has been able to find strong replacement teachers in part because it has taken several steps to strengthen the front end of its teacher pipeline, including starting its annual hiring cycle earlier in the year, recruiting nationally, and introducing a more rigorous, multi-step hiring process that FutureEd analyzed in a 2021 study.

DCPS has leveraged compensation actively and strategically to attract and retain teaching talent. DCPS salaries now start at $56,000 (compared to $42,000 nationally). The average DCPS salary is $92,000 (compared to $68,000 nationally). And high-performing teachers can get to the top of the salary schedule much more quickly than in most school districts, are able to earn as much as $141,000 a year, and receive generous health care, pensions, and other benefits.

At the same time, DCPS has been a national leader in the use of compensation incentives to address shortages and staff challenging schools, with highly effective teachers earning as much as $25,000 a year in bonuses for working in schools serving low-performing, low-income students.

DCPS’s prior, union-backed practice of seniority-based staffing, long the norm in American public education, incentivized the flow of top teachers out of such neighborhoods. Teachers used their seniority to seize jobs in safer, more attractive schools and neighborhoods. In contrast, the district’s incentive-compensation strategy has helped DCPS keep outstanding teachers in its highest-needs neighborhoods. Within-school retention among highly effective teachers in DCPS Title I schools is now the same as non-Title I schools: 90 percent. Notably, thousands of school districts nationwide have introduced similar incentive systems in recent years to combat shortages in the wake of the pandemic.

DCPS has also implemented an ambitious school-based professional-development system, established a path to professional advancement through a career ladder and teacher leadership opportunities, and created ways to publicly recognize its outstanding teachers—steps that signal the district’s commitment to its teacher corps and that are research-based steps to increase teacher retention.

Each of the district’s retention strategies depend on a meaningful teacher-evaluation system, on knowing who’s doing a good job in the classroom and who isn’t. DCPS has one of the best-designed, most effective evaluation systems in the country, using multiple measures to gauge teachers’ impact on student performance.

It includes student achievement in its measurement, but not excessively. Student growth on standardized test results (averaged over two years to increase accuracy) make up 25 percent of the scores of teachers in grades 4-10 (grades where it’s possible to gauge teachers’ contribution to student achievement under federally mandates standardized tests). They play no role in the evaluation scores of the rest of the district’s teachers.

The bulk of teachers’ scores are derived from classroom observations under a “score card” of research-based components of good teaching that’s used districtwide. In following best practices, teachers typically receive multiple observations during the school year, often by multiple observers.

Districtwide, Black and White observers tend to rate White teachers slightly higher than Black teachers (.15 standard deviations across the city), a variance found in teacher evaluation systems nationally and partially attributed to the fact that higher proportions of Black teachers tend to work in low-income communities where teaching is often tougher. DCPS has implemented implicit-bias training for everyone who conducts teacher observations in the district.

Collectively, DCPS’s human capital policies are a model for the nation. The DCPS teaching force was vastly inferior before the policies were implemented and would likely decline again if they were dismantled.

Thank you very much.