New Report Blasts Poor Retention Rates for Irreplaceable Teachers

Takepart.comJuly 31, 2012

Anyone who has ever watched a beloved teacher permanently leave school knows well the gap that is left behind. Sadly, for millions of urban students, this emptiness is a far-too common reality. The nonprofit TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) has just released a fascinating report on this trend called The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in Schools.

According to this report, strong and weak teachers are being retained at the same dismal rate. “Only 10 percent of teachers are leaving, each year,” Timothy Daly, president of the project, told The New York Times. “The problem, though, is that we lose so many great teachers, especially early in their career, that half of them are gone by year six.”

TNTP looked at over 90,000 teachers in four urban areas for the basis of this report. Based on student scores in state exams and student reviews, they determined that just 20 percent of these teachers are “irreplaceables”: teachers who are so successful their students actually obtain the equivalent of five to six months of extra learning compared to students in weaker teachers’ classes. If one of these irreplaceable teachers leaves, TNTP estimates that it will take approximately 11 hires to find a teacher of a similar caliber. In other words, they are pretty much irreplaceable.

More: How to Sustain Talented Teachers in High-Poverty Schools

“These are the teachers our urban schools desperately need to keep,” the report reads. “Yet we found that they are ignored and undervalued at almost every turn. Their experience illuminates the true obstacles to turning around chronically low-performing schools and raising the status of the teaching profession.”

The report states that schools retain top-performing teachers at the same rate as their underperforming peers—about half of the irreplaceables leave school within their first five years on the job. In the report, TNTP cites three major reasons why this is true:

“Principals make too little effort to retain Irreplaceables or remove low-performing teachers.” Good teachers are not very often commended for their work or, according to two-thirds of the teachers polled for this report, encouraged to return for another school year. “Poor school cultures and working conditions drive away great teachers.” Teachers who are working in a school that doesn’t hold them—and their peers—to high expectations tend to drop out. “Policies give principals and district leaders few incentives to change their ways.” Too often, compensational raises are tied in with seniority and tenure, not excellence.

Heighten expectations in the urban school setting and focus on retaining high-performing teachers of all levels, and this great exodus of irreplaceables will be curbed. Yet, there are critics of this report who claim this is just too simplistic and potentially flawed. There are plenty of education-minded people currently debating this report on Twitter and in their blogs who say it focuses too much on possibly misleading student scores and makes dubious claims that weak teachers cannot improve and should be dismissed.

"This report is puzzling,” Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, said in a statement. “On the one hand it makes the point of the importance of keeping good teachers and what's needed to do that. On the other, it assumes that someone can magically become a good teacher and that school leadership means simply firing bad teachers. What is missing is the work that needs to be done to create continuous development and support systems to help all teachers become great teachers. This is how we make sure that every student succeeds.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, however, lauded the report, “America’s best teachers are truly irreplaceable,” he said in a statement. “I’ve said that when it comes to teaching, talent matters tremendously. But TNTP’s report documents in painful detail that school leaders are doing far too little to nurture, retain, and reward great teachers—and not nearly enough to identify and assist struggling teachers. Our teachers, who play such a crucial role in the lives of children, deserve a profession built on respect and rigor. And our children deserve—and need—to learn from those irreplaceable teachers.”

Have you ever had a teacher you felt was irreplaceable? Share your thoughts in comments.

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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.