Forum On DC Teacher & Principal Retention: November 28

This Wednesday November 28, from 6 pm-8 pm, the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) and teacher advocacy group EmpowerEd will hold a joint forum on staff retention in DC’s publicly funded schools. The forum will be held at Walker-Jones Education Campus, 1125 New Jersey Ave. NW. RSVP here.

The idea is to brainstorm how to improve retention of both teachers and principals in DC’s publicly funded schools. Two recent reports (one commissioned by SBOE and one done out of the DC auditor’s office) make clear that our teachers and principals are struggling–and leaving our schools at high rates.

While the auditor’s report on principals was not comprehensive—it looked only at DCPS principals, and only 43% participated—its conclusions are sobering: principals struggle with lack of money for what they need; lack of autonomy (somewhat related); and the destabilizing influence of 1-year contracts, all the while being held to standards that often are unrealizable. Sadly, participating principals recognized that teachers leave because of all of that.

The SBOE report on teacher and principal turnover, by DC education researcher Mary Levy, was much more comprehensive inasmuch as it looked at data in both charter and DCPS schools.

Overall, our public school teacher turnover rates dwarf national averages and have socioeconomic implications, such that the more at risk students a school has, the higher its teacher turnover. The data examined by Levy from the last 3 years alone show that fully a quarter of our public school teachers leave each year—a much higher rate than other jurisdictions. The result is that over half a decade, most of our publicly funded schools will see the majority of their teachers leave.

Our DC public school principal turnover is high as well, averaging about 25% annually. Although that is closer to the national average for principal turnover, in DC it is (like teacher turnover) also correlated with socioeconomics, such that schools with the most at risk students often have the most principal turnover.

So here is the question of the moment:

If the staff in our schools are leaving at such high rates, can we ensure our kids will receive as good an education as we aspire to give them?

To be sure, some have opined that teacher turnover is actually good. (Yeah.) Given that recent studies on that subject were not peer-reviewed, that conclusion should IMO be taken with a grain of salt here in DC (especially because it appears that the people undertaking that research benefitted from our city’s high turnover generating research grants).

Moreover, the answer to my question above appears to be “no” when we understand how higher poverty schools in DCPS–which tend to have more teacher churn–end up with less experienced teachers.

There is also the continual challenge of DC’s education data:

The auditor’s principal report was, literally, a snapshot that raises significant questions (i.e., why did only 43% of DCPS principals participate?) and leaves an entire sector–charter schools–unexamined.

Likewise, Levy’s SBOE study attempted to compare 3 years of data in both charter schools and DCPS–but in the end raised as many questions as it answered.

For one, we have this data on teacher turnover in DCPS only because Levy herself has spent years comparing staff rosters for individual DCPS schools and budgets and reported what she found. Consider, for a moment, the painful irony of Levy being commissioned to do a report on teacher attrition in DCPS through a painstaking process of backing out data that the school system may already have in a better format–and, for all any of us knows, could provide in a much easier way.

For another, the charter school data on teacher turnover is suspect, as Levy discovered that a number of charter schools appeared to have confused teacher attrition with retention in their required annual reports.

Thus, whenever the reported teacher attrition rate in a charter school was higher than 50%, Levy painstakingly compared staff rosters from one year to the next in the same school. Roster comparisons were, however, inexact because different schools defined “teacher” in different ways, and the rosters themselves changed in form and format from year to year. (Not to mention that the attrition/retention confusion happened within LEAs–so each school had to be looked at separately.) Nonetheless, Levy recorded how many teachers appeared to stay and leave each year; used that to determine whether the reported high rate of attrition above 50% was accurate; and, if it was not accurate, flipped the percentage.

(Here BTW is Levy’s spreadsheet of what she discovered were incorrect teacher attrition rates in DC charter schools’ annual reports. Here’s what I reported about charter teacher retention this year and last–using those wrong reported values because I assumed that the charter reporting was accurate. Yeah.)

Levy’s excruciating (and sadly necessary) exercise in backing out data on teacher attrition in both sectors really begs a few questions, such as whether anyone at the charter board noticed the problems in the annual reports it demands (and whether anyone leading charter LEAs is monitoring the fidelity of reporting from individual schools in the same LEA); whether anyone will demand DCPS release its own attrition data beyond basic, anodyne (and politically advantageous) reporting; and whether charter teacher attrition rates reported to be below 50% are accurate (and if not, who is minding that ship).

Levy’s study also did not examine why or how teacher turnover actually happens. While the majority of the principals in the auditor’s report noted that they find the teacher evaluation system in DCPS, IMPACT, to be limited and limiting for all adults involved, Levy’s SBOE study found that many of the teachers leaving DCPS each year get good ratings under IMPACT. This suggests not only that IMPACT may be a poor tool for measuring teacher quality, but that it may have a baleful influence on teacher retention in DCPS. Given that IMPACT is based largely on student test scores, and that DCPS’s most effective teachers are less likely to work at the highest poverty schools, the ramifications are huge.

Say! All this sounds like DC could use a truly independent research initiative on teacher attrition, such that we could compare sectors; could understand causes; and could provide solutions because we would all be working from the same data, which would be accurately reported and not something we would have to derive for ourselves but something LEAs themselves would give freely!

Speaking of which: If you have not yet, maybe give your city council reps. a jingle about that on Monday.

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