Study: Urban Schools Don’t do Enough to Retain Good Teachers

Many states are now wrestling with how to make it easier to fire and replace underperforming teachers. But too few education experts and advocates are seriously looking at a related issue: how to retain excellent teachers and encourage them to take jobs in schools where their skills are most needed. The difficulty in staffing urban schools with good instructors is the subject of a study recently published by The New Teacher Project, an organization that focuses on finding the best ways to bring effective teachers to poor and minority students.

The first step to solving the teacher retention crisis in America’s urban schools is identifying the teachers schools would most like to retain. It isn’t enough to offer bonuses to remain to all instructors. For the effort to succeed, only the right instructors should be encouraged to continue at the schools. To document the attempts of urban schools to accomplish this feat, the report focuses on the the experiences of the so-called Irreplaceables – which is also the title of the paper – exceptional teachers that schools would find almost impossible to replace.

The authors looked at over 90,000 teachers teaching in urban school districts all over the country and found that roughly 20% could be considered irreplaceable. The group includes instructors who not only provide a more engaging learning environment for their students, they also manage to cram in 1.5 times as much learning into a single academic year as their less accomplished peers.

And while their impact on their students can’t be understated, their treatment at the schools that employ them doesn’t in the least reflect their value or their skill.

Knowing the power of great teachers, one would expect schools to be sharply focused on keeping far more of their best teachers than their lower performers. Instead, they retain all teachers at strikingly similar rates; and about half of all Irreplaceables leave within their first five years. This means too many Irreplaceables are leaving too early—we estimate that the nation’s 50 largest school districts lose approximately 10,000 every year—while too many struggling teachers remain for too long.

As a result, nearly 10% of classrooms in urban districts studied are headed by an experienced but an underperforming teacher. Furthermore, the authors found that nearly 40% of teachers in urban school districts who have 7 years of experience or more perform worse than an average first-year teacher at the same school.

Solving the real teacher retention crisis requires a new approach that revolves around smart retention: keeping more Irreplaceables and fewer low-performing teachers.

This approach could improve the quality of teaching at almost any school right away, and it has the potential to boost student learning substantially. We believe it represents the best way—possibly the only way—for low-performing schools to break their cycles of failure, and for the teaching profession to achieve the elite status it deserves