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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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By Bill Turque  |  August 12, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
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First get rid of Michelle Rhee. Then let's look at the data regarding attrition. The one who arrived, fired, hired and fired again and again is clueless regarding how to attract quality staff and retain staff.

Posted by: candycane1 | August 12, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Bill, can you get data on the attrition rate for teacher fellows? This is a program that DC taxpayers pay for to recruit teachers from other professions. It's an expensive program. From what I've observed, there's tremendous attrition.

Posted by: Nemessis | August 12, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

While it would be nice to see the stats on TFA and Teacher Fellows, as Bill quote Miss Rhee (and as Miss Rhee demonstrated in Baltimore in 1995), those programs are designed to get a person into a classroom for just a couple years then they leave.
I wonder how many of the original TFA from 20 years ago are still in the classroom.

Posted by: edlharris | August 12, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I could be wrong but I think the DC Teaching Fellows are different from the TFAs in that they aren't just in it for a resume bullet, the fellows were supposed to be talented professionals from other fields that were interested in teaching, not just for a 2-year stint, but for the long haul.

Posted by: Nemessis | August 12, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

The high turnover at our school preceded Rhee. In my five years as a teacher I have seen lots come and go. (Examine the stats on adminstrators that has to be worse). Most come and what they want to do is teach and get better at the profession of teaching. Unfortunately, they end of doing lots of other things like (1) buying thousands of dollars of supplies out of pocket, (2) getting physically threatened (particularly important relative to female teachers) more often than not, (3) calling and calling parents AFTER HOURS, (4) being forced to absorb and conform to changes in administration regularly and (5) not getting the kind of professional development, comraderie and learning that any intellectually curious person would want. And there are some pretty good places to teach in this area. No slight to anyone but you have to persevere beyond the odds to survive the gauntlet...i feel that these kids are my kids - i grew up just like them and see many of my childhood friends in them, my family has teachers, and so i love it but some people just want to be able to teach

Posted by: mathteachdc | August 12, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Ah, Candycane - another rare disagreement. I think Rhee is totally clued in on teacher attrition. She wants it and she's getting in by hiring people who have no intention of staying in teaching and by making life miserable for those who do.

Remember these Rhee quotes, from 2008:
“Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.”

…I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.
The Atlantic 10/08

Posted by: efavorite | August 13, 2010 7:11 AM | Report abuse

Efavorite: I don't think we are in disagreement. You are correct. But I'm speaking of career attrition, what used to be termed as natural attrition, the kind where people choose teaching as a profession, grow in the profession and have a history of success benchmarks. We used to be able to assess by years how many teachers would be needed for example in ten years.(retirement or by percentages of people majoring in education, things like that) That created a recruiting plan, something sensible and data based. What we are experiencing now is just instability to me. Yes the definition refers to the weakening in numbers, but I'm simply speaking from my own references of how attrition "had" been dealt with. The system wasn't really causing it to happen as it is now. Now the system "is" creating the dilema. So I think we agree?

If you remember, at her confirmation hearing, she was asked about the New Teacher Project by Gray in fact, of how many teachers hired were retained. She kept no data. They were only responsible for recruiting teachers. That answered it for me. Another reason she needs to go. The revolving door doesn't work and she doesn't have the skill to retain teachers. Her idea is simply wiping out veteran teachers and it's about money. She doesn't have a clue of how the workforce should look in 5 to 10 years from now. No vision. Wiping them out the Rhee way doesn't build a workforce and will never create stability.

Posted by: candycane1 | August 13, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

DC Teaching Fellows are asked to stay in it for the long haul. When I was a DCTF recruit they said that our commitment was for two years but that the Fellows hoped we would stay for much longer. I know many Fellows who are in their 6th, 7th, or even entering their 10th year. Unfortunately the attrition rate is quite high. Many leave after the two years are up - exhausted with battling so many different entities simply to do their job and feeling that it isn't worth it. Quite a few leave before the two years are up. Of my cohort of 76 or so Fellows I would be surprised if 20 are left. DCTF used to offer Master's Degrees in education from American, Trinity and GW. These courses were reimbursed by DCPS. This was the greatest expense to the DC Taxpayer. Last year DCTF ended the graduate courses for their fellows saying that most already had a Masters and didn't want another. They now use seminars to train their recruits. Quite frankly, as someone who went through the DCTF program, even with a graduate program being given to us we were inadequately prepared for the types of classrooms we were dropped into. Once in the classroom, aside from the graduate classes, pretty much all support from DCTF dried up - we were on our own. If DCPS were smart they would turn DCTF into a mentoring program where the recruit is in the classroom with a veteran teacher for two years before being given a class of their own. This would definitely change the attrition rate and develop much better teachers in our classrooms. As it stands now the Fellow recruit is left on their own and it is sink or swim.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | August 13, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

"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."

She must be referring to school-based administrators in this statement. Has she ever even considered that perhaps she is the one not creating the right work environment?

Posted by: musiclady | August 13, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Yes, candycane - we agree. So maybe you or turque, or Mary Levy, or someone here can tell us -- what is typical teacher attrition? with a teacher corps of 4,000, what percent generally retire, or leave for other reasons?

Posted by: efavorite | August 13, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

"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."

EXPECTS? STILL BEING FINALIZED? It's a couple of weeks before school starts and she still doesn't know how many principals she has?

Sounds like recruiting isn't going so well.

Posted by: efavorite | August 13, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Fortunately for the citizens of DC, the turnover rate for "chancellors" is even worse than it is for teachers.

As for the "management" of teachers, if you have someone almost solely responsible for the safety and education of twenty to thirty children during the course of a day, you'd better hire a professional who can manage herself as well as the children in her care.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | August 13, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Thanks to adcteacher1 for clearing up the difference between teaching fellows a TFA. TFA is a resume-building internship for kids, (privileged kids who go into poor areas for a couple of years, much as Peace Corps kids go to poor countries) while teaching fellows are recruited from experienced professionals within the community for the long haul. Teaching fellows bring maturity, greater subject-matter knowledge and a commitment to the community, while TFA's are young recruits to the TFA cult. The poor attrition rates for TFA are by design, while attrition for teaching fellows is due to poor working conditions.

As far as Rhee and attrition, she is a TFA, NTP cultist. Attrition is profitable for her and her company, so she supports and encourages it.

Posted by: mcstowy | August 13, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

If DCPS wants to attract and retain highly qualified and effective teachers who will stay longer than 2-3 years, the first thing they need to do is get rid of Rhee. She does not believe teaching is a profession but rather something you do 2-3 years right after college. That is why we are seeing a glut of TFA people in DCPS. This is the last thing a struggling urban school system needs. We need teachers who are in it for the long haul and are willing to make an investment in the students and the system.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | August 13, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

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