Did D.C. Reforms Mean More ‘Irreplaceable’ Teachers Stuck Around?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — November 16, 2012 4 min read
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“I can have another you by tomorrow,
So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.”
- Beyonce Knowles on...teacher turnover? (Irreplaceable)

This summer, the New York-based nonprofit TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) told school districts they need to disregard Beyonce: Some teachers are so good that they are, in fact, irreplaceable. Too often, those teachers leave school districts willingly, feeling unsupported and unrecognized. Now, in a follow-up report, TNTP has zoomed in on the Washington, D.C., public school system, where, it says, policies have made irreplaceable teachers more likely to stick around.

Washington’s “irreplaceables” are the 14 percent of teachers who were rated “highly effective” on the district’s IMPACT rating system. TNTP says that in the 2010-11 school year, the District of Columbia public school system retained 88 percent of its top teachers and 45 percent of low performers. Washington’s overall teacher retention rate, at 79 percent, was apparently lower overall than that of other districts TNTP studied—but that’s because it’s shedding higher rates of low-scoring teachers. The District is very close to meeting TNTP’s suggested 90 percent retention for top performers. The report says the fact that DC retained so many more high-performing teachers than low-performing teachers suggests that the school system’s merit pay and teacher evaluation practices are working: “DCPS provides evidence that strategic policy changes can help districts break the cycle of negligent teacher retention.”

The first report’s catchy language and common-sense conclusion—districts should work to retain the best teachers and not the worst—garnered a lot of attention this summer. But it’s important to note that some researchers and educators have questioned the report’s methodology, as this Washington Post blog highlights. Here’s a critique of the first study‘s methods from the Albert Shanker Institute, a foundation named after the former American Federation of Teachers president. The Shanker Institute also questioned the new case study’s reliance on a single year of data and a survey that got responses from a smallish, nonrandom group of D.C. teachers. The Shanker Institute’s Matthew Di Carlo clarifies that he’s criticizing the means of identifying and characterizing “irreplaceables,” not the idea that districts should have strategies to retain their best teachers.

With all of this in mind, here’s some more on the new report.

The TNTP report ties DCPS’s retention numbers to some of the policy changes that came about with the district’s 2010 contract and to the IMPACT system. DCPS has currently implemented all of the “smart retention” policies that TNTP suggests: an evaluation system that meaningfully differentiates performance; performance rather than seniority impacts layoffs; principals determine what teachers are placed in schools; teachers can earn money for high performance; teachers have several career pathway options; and low performers are moved out of the classroom quickly.

The positive review of D.C. policies and the system’s alignment with TNTP’s suggestions may not be surprising, given that both current schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee were affiliated with TNTP. Rhee is one of its founders. The report addresses the connection in a short footnote.

Still, TNTP says there’s room for improvement in the nation’s capital. Washington is still losing a number of its best teachers every year, the report said. And nearly 40 percent of the school district’s teachers said they were dissatisfied with their school’s morale and culture. The report says this is evidence that some principals are far better at creating positive working environments and retaining teachers than others, which lines up with new research from the Elementary School Journal. The first TNTP report came with a principal’s guide for keeping more irreplaceable teachers, with advice like “Start having ‘stay conversations’ before Thanksgiving.” (It’s almost time!)

There are some equity and fairness issues at stake here, too. Most “irreplaceables” teach at low-needs schools. From the report:

“In a high-need DCPS elementary school, the typical student will have two low-performing teachers before she moves on to middle school, and nearly 40 percent of the students will never be assigned to an Irreplaceable’s classroom. In a low-need elementary school, however, the typical student will have two or three Irreplaceable teachers, and most students (4 out of 5) will never have a low-performing teacher.”

The report suggests that this could be because top-performing teachers are inequitably distributed or because it is easier for teachers in low-need schools to earn high IMPACT ratings. Or is it both? Many District teachers have criticized the IMPACT reviews. (The Washington Post quotes a parent activist and former teacher criticizing the system, and this reporter has heard similar complaints.)

Washington’s public schools have been in the news for other reasons recently: Earlier this week, the district released a list of some 20 schools that are set to close in the next year. School closings are on the agenda of several big districts this year—they remain incredibly contentious in Chicago, where some community advocates are saying that the neighborhood schools are themselves irreplaceable (cue Beyonce). The impact of school closings on the teaching force, among other things, is a concern of unions in both Washington and Chicago, though Henderson seems to be attempting to handle the situation carefully. Here she is fielding questions on local radio station WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

The number of students in the District who attend public schools has actually grown in recent years, but much of that growth has taken place in the city’s public charter schools. The TNTP study focused on the 45,000-student traditional public school system.

Image: Beyonce performs at the MTV Video Music Awards last summer in Los Angeles.--Matt Sayles/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.