Getting a handle on teacher attrition
As I looked at all the fresh-faced teachers starting their orientation Wednesday at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC), I had to wonder how many would still be around in two or three years. If the existing data is any guide, the answer is not that many. DCPS says it doesn't have any readily available numbers. But estimates developed by Mary Levy, who just finished a stint as a budget consultant to the D.C. Council, indicate that the school system has a big problem retaining teachers--even bigger than other urban school systems that struggle with attrition.
Using DCPS payroll records between 2001 to 2010, Levy found that an average of 76 percent of DCPS teachers leave after five years or less of service. Of the 971 teachers hired in fiscal year 2002, for example, Levy concludes that 724 were gone by 2007. About a quarter of all new hires last a year or less.
"To me, this is really alarming," said Levy, who spent years analyzing school budgets for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Teacher attrition is a slippery and much-debated issue, with various studies placing the five-year departure rate at anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. Getting a clear picture is complicated in part by the profession's demographics, which are dominated by young women who leave the profession to start families and then return. Training programs such as Teach For America, which expect their recruits to stay only for two years, are also a factor.
The most meaningful comparison to the District might be Baltimore City Public Schools. A new study by the National Council on Teacher Quality showed that just 57 percent of new teachers hired three years ago are still in the system--in other words, 43 percent are gone. Levy places the three-year DCPS attrition at 59 percent.
Moreover, the study found that retention rates decline as the number of students with low-income backrounds increases. Schools with poverty rates of between 50 and 75 percent have a three-year retention rate of 67 percent. In schools where between 85 and 95 percent of the students are poor, retention falls to 53 percent.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said school districts are dealing with a generational change among college graduates who are likely to change careers multiple times over the course of their working lives. "Thirty years ago you went into that profession, you stayed in that profession," she said.
But attrition rates are still unacceptably high, Rhee said, and she's hoping that better professional development, higher pay and "hiring more good solid principals" will help persuade more new educators to stay.
"They want to be managed by someone who is creating the right work environment," said Rhee, who expects to bring on another two-dozen new principals this year. She said the list of new school leaders is still being finalized.
Earlier this year I spoke with a number of young current and former DCPS teachers, trying to get a better handle on why they leave in such numbers. The common threads: lack of support, endless meetings with no purpose, and disorganized or even abusive administrators. Others said they found that the new IMPACT evaluation system drained much of the creativity from teaching, and shifted their focus from students to compliance with the checklist-like requirements of the "teaching and learning framework."
The ultimate victims, of course, are the students, who sometimes blame themselves when teachers leave.
"It's heartbreaking. It's like kids in a divorce," said Danielle Vinglish, 24, who quit her job as a first-year history teacher in January. "They need continuity. They need to see the same teachers year after year."
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