Top Teachers Flee Nation’s Largest School Districts

Published August 16, 2012

High-performing teachers are conducting a mass exodus from urban school districts that make little to no pay, promotion, or personal distinctions between them and poor teachers, according to a report from The New Teacher Project. The study examined 90,000 teachers in four urban districts.

The report estimates the nation’s 50 largest districts lose approximately 10,000 high-performing teachers every year. These districts enroll approximately 7,914,533 students, or 14 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren.

“The real story of this study is the neglect of great teachers, those we’ve called irreplaceables,” said David Keeling, a report author. “The main thing is to start … encouraging and rewarding our best teachers while ushering chronically unsuccessful teachers out of the classroom.”

Irreplaceables constitute the top 20 percent of teachers. They generate five to six more months of student learning than poor-performing teachers each year.

“Districts have very little difference between the retention rates of the top teachers and the retention rates of their lowest-performing teachers,” Keeling said.

Little Effort Made
About 55 percent of the irreplaceables earn lower salaries than the average ineffective teacher, the study found. Compensation was one of the most frequently stated reasons irreplaceables gave for leaving schools.

“Right now, the way that we pay teachers is entirely based on years of experience and credentials, which are two things that we know are just unrelated to how effective a teacher is in the classroom,” said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “If we can target higher salaries to precisely the kind of teachers we want to keep, then we would be more likely to keep more of the best teachers in the classroom.”

The study found fewer than 30 percent of irreplaceables said their schools had identified opportunities for them to function as lead teachers; such positions were offered just as often to lower-performing teachers or didn’t exist. Offering irreplaceables these career opportunities is key to attracting and retaining them, said Bryan Hassel, co-director of the education consulting firm Public Impact.

“In other professions like law and medicine, there are many ways for people to advance in their careers,” Hassel said. “They can manage other professionals, or specialize in a wide array of focus areas, and they can do these things while continuing to practice their profession. Teaching lacks this kind of opportunity array—unless you’re willing to leave teaching and become an administrator.”

Low-Cost Strategies
The study recommends simple, low-cost strategies for retaining irreplaceables. These include regular positive feedback, identifying skills to develop, giving critical feedback informally, recognizing accomplishments publicly, informing top teachers that they are high-performing, and providing access to additional classroom resources. Top teachers who experience two or more of these retention strategies plan to keep teaching at their schools for nearly twice as long as top teachers who do not.

“There are very simple things that principals can do that don’t necessarily take a lot of extra effort that can start to build the kind of culture that supports high-performing teachers and encourages them to stay in their classrooms,” Keeling said.

A culture of high expectations can also improve retention. Almost 90 percent of teachers at schools with high expectations said they were satisfied with their work environment, compared with 55 to 62 percent in urban districts with low expectations.

Barriers to Retention
The New Teacher Project’s 2009 study, “The Widget Effect,” found nearly all teachers receive “good” or “great” evaluations with little insight into their performance, making it difficult for principals to identify irreplaceables or low performers.

Winters recommends ditching states’ burdensome and useless certification and degree requirements.

The “Irreplaceables” study found 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are less effective than the average first-year teacher. Winters says principals face serious roadblocks in removing these ineffective teachers, particularly because nearly all of them have tenure.

“Getting rid of a tenured teacher for poor performance is theoretically possible, but in practice it is such a burdensome process with such little probability of success that the vast majority of principals don’t even try,” Winters said.

Learn More:
“The Irreplaceables,” The New Teacher Project, July 2012:



Image by Judy Baxter.