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Keeping Irreplaceables in D.C. Public Schools: Lessons in Smart Teacher Retention

Anna Hall // November 8, 2012

Today, TNTP released a new case study of teacher retention patterns in Washington, D.C. public schools, one of the districts included in its original “Irreplaceables” report. In the last three years, DCPS has radically shifted its approach to teacher evaluation and compensation. The TNTP case study offered powerful evidence that smart policy and determined leadership can materially improve a district’s ability to retain top teachers.

According to the report, in 2010-2011, DCPS retained nearly twice as many top performing (88%) as low performing (45%) teachers. By comparison, the other four districts in the initial study produced woefully small differences in retention rates of top and low performers. And, what’s more exciting, improving strategic retention doesn’t have to take forever - DCPS initiated its IMPACT teacher evaluation system in 2009, just over a year before these results were measured.

Along with the good news, the report also highlighted critical areas for further improvement. Most DCPS principals, for example, don’t include “smart retention” as a key priority, and too few of them are using low-cost, simple strategies to keep the best teachers at their schools. High performing teachers are clustered at low-need schools, while high-need schools are still starving for talent. Top teachers in the district still appear to want more critical feedback than they’re getting. And across the board, the findings indicate that a strong school culture is the trump card to keep great people – and far too many DCPS teachers feel their schools have weak ones.

Encouragingly, the formula DCPS used to improve their chances of keeping top talent is not complicated. They implemented a rigorous teacher evaluation system, based on multiple measures of performance. They protected their top talent from budget-driven layoffs, and made it easier to dismiss low performers. They tied bonuses and raises to classroom performance. They renegotiated contracts to support these strategies.

It’s an approach that’s well within the grasp of district and union leaders in New York State – if players on both sides step up to the challenge. Governor Cuomo’s proposed framework for a teacher/principal evaluation system is a promising beginning – but at the district level, there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Many districts across the state – including New York City – have yet to submit proposals for the new system, and the January 17 deadline is rapidly approaching.

But even if there is statewide participation in the new evaluation framework, better evaluations alone won’t produce significant improvements in teacher retention patterns. As the work in DCPS has demonstrated, there are a few other key strategies that we should begin working to implement.

Performance-based compensation systems are helpful – new teachers can make higher salaries, which supports recruitment, and top performing teachers can earn significant raises, which supports strategic retention – but most of our current contracts prohibit them. When district and union leaders sit down to negotiate the next round of contracts, they should abandon the old the step-and-ladder compensation framework, and reshape tenure and seniority rules to favor effectiveness over experience.

Leadership matters - great systemic policies are important, but districts must do a better job of training principals to recruit, develop, and retain great teachers, and then support their efforts to do so. That means district leaders may need to re-examine what they expect principals to do in the course of a day, how principals are evaluated, and what accountability tools are used to measure their success.

And, finally, great ideas are important – but they’re just the start. Reflection and revision are critical if districts hope to continually improve. In DCPS, for example, the case study findings raise the question of whether or not it’s easier for teachers in low-need schools to earn high ratings. TNTP rightfully urges DCPS to further analyze their data to answer this question and adjust their systems accordingly. As districts across NYS implement plans for improving retention patterns, they’d do well to develop (and build on, where they already exist) systemic cycles of assessment, reflection, and revision that help expand success.

It’s hopeful to see such progress on this issue in DCPS - a district facing many of the same challenges we have in New York State. It’s also helpful to know which strategies and ideas seem to be working so far. But TNTP’s report is also a sobering reminder that while New York State and New York City have shifted the policy landscape in important ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention patterns, we still have a long way to go. As we move forward, we would do well to learn from the thoughtful work of our colleagues in DCPS.