Professional Development Opinion

Response: Reducing Attrition in Urban Schools ‘By Listening to Our Teachers’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 08, 2014 12 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

Why do teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools and what can be done to improve the situation?

Educators Angel Cintron and Paul Bruno provided their guest responses to this question in Part One. In Part Two, Barnett Berry and Ilana Garon share their thoughts. Today, Liam Goldrick and David Orphal are contributing responses, and I’m featuring many comments from readers, too.

You might also want to listen to two recent nine-minute podcasts I’ve done with guest contributors to this series -- Part One’s writers, Angel Cintron and Paul Bruno, talk about “Why Precisely Do Teachers Leave High Poverty Schools?” and Barnett Berry and Ilana Garon, Part Two’s contributors, discuss “How Can We Reduce Teacher Attrition At High Poverty Schools?”

Before beginning with today’s guests, however, I’d like to make a few comments on the topic. I have taught at Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school (one hundred percent of our students receive free breakfast and lunch) for ten years, and we certainly do not have a teacher attrition problem. In fact, our school is considered by many teachers, both the ones who are there now and many who would like to be there, as a prime place to work.

Why is this the case?

* Strong and effective discipline policies that include a dispute resolution process, administrator support for teachers, and multiple intervention strategies to ensure a safe school and classroom environment conducive to learning.

* A commitment to genuine professional development designed to help teachers grow in their craft. Our school has long-term relationships with top-notch consultants who know us and our students well -- nobody parachutes in for a quick workshop.

* Teachers are treated as professionals and are provided with considerable autonomy. Our school is divided into six Small Learning Communities of approximately 300 students and twenty teachers and each SLC Lead Teacher is primarily responsible for scheduling and other duties.

* We emphasize being data-informed instead of being data-driven, and standardized test scores have no role in the teacher evaluation process.

* Class sizes are small, thanks to the work of the California Teachers Association.

The list could go on and on, but it’s safe to say that teachers, students and their families are generally quite happy with what is going on at our school....

Also, last week Education Week published the results of an interesting study highlighting the role of a school’s location in a teacher choosing and staying there.

Now, for today’s guests:

Response From Liam Goldrick

Liam Goldrick is Director of Policy at New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the effectiveness of beginning educators. Liam leads initiatives to strengthen state policies that support new teachers and principals. Prior to joining NTC in 2006, Liam was education policy advisor to Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and senior policy analyst in the Education Division at the National Governors Association.:

Attracting and retaining excellent teachers in our nation’s urban schools is a perennial challenge. It is, in part, because the root causes of educators’ reluctance to work and stay in these challenging environments typically go unaddressed by our public policies and school management practices. Education policy du jour, including school accountability and teacher bonuses, are aimed at upping the performance of schools and providing incentives for teachers to work in low-performing schools, rather than improving the teaching and learning conditions within those schools. When education policy makers ask educators for ideas to strengthen urban schools, they get a very different set of recommendations to transform the underlying cultures of those schools.

Firstly, supportive teaching conditions top the list of educators’ demands. Since 2008, New Teacher Center (NTC) has received completed surveys from more than 1 million educators in 15 states and 23 individual school districts across the United States. Teachers consistently cite a culture of trust and mutual respect, supportive school leadership, and collaborative time with peers as the most critical elements of a supportive school community. For many reasons - including inexperienced principals, overwhelmed colleagues, inconsistent support and resource constraints - these conditions are less likely to be present in urban schools. NTC’s Teaching Empowering Leading and Learning (TELL) surveys can help to prioritize these issues and inform school improvement planning by providing school- and district-specific data on questions related to time, facilities and resources, community support and involvement, managing student conduct, teacher leadership, school leadership, professional development, instructional practices and support, and new teacher support.

As a result of the challenging conditions and high teacher turnover in urban schools, the teaching force tends to be younger and less experienced--and, on average, less effective. Beginning teachers have a steeper learning curve and would benefit from high-quality, individualized professional learning opportunities such as those afforded by induction programs that feature assistance from carefully selected, well-trained mentors. All teachers - early career and veteran alike - want such on-the-job opportunities to learn and improve their practice. But too few American schools provide dedicated time for such teacher learning amidst other pressing school priorities, heavy teaching loads, and funding constraints.

Here again, a solution exists. Research-based induction programs and effective instructional coaching approaches have been shown to accelerate teacher development, advance teaching effectiveness and increase student learning while reducing teacher attrition and building a stronger sense of collective mission. NTC is proud to be working with school districts across the nation, such as Hillsborough County (Florida) and the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project (California), and states, such as Hawaii and Rhode Island, pioneering this effort.

Policy makers and school leaders should focus on building supportive school cultures to attract and retain teachers in our urban schools. Changing the context in which teachers work day in and day out is more likely to reduce attrition rates than monetary incentives. Improving school leadership and professional supports in urban school systems is more likely to achieve our shared goals of greater student learning and school success than a more punitive focus that simply demands better results within the same context. At the same time, we must not squander the potential benefits that an investment in teacher professional development, especially teacher induction programs, can bring to urban districts.

We can improve public education by developing effective teachers and creating structures that enable great teaching. The answers are there in front of us. The solutions are unfolding in innovative states and districts across our nation. It all starts by listening more closely to our teachers.

Response From David Orphal

David Orphal teaches in Oakland, California and writes a blog at The Center For Teaching Quality:

I teach in Oakland, CA. Many of my students live in neighborhoods suffering from high-poverty and high levels of violence. While I have been here going on eight years, I see the revolving door. Every year we replace about 25% of our staff. Most new hires remain for a year or two before moving on or moving out of teaching all together.

There are many reasons. But the one I want to touch on here is emotional. Working in a high-needs school is emotionally draining. Every year, our school loses two or three or four students to violence. Just last Thursday, a former student was gunned down in a gun battle that raged through several neighborhoods in East Oakland. Our student was well known and well loved by many of us.

What consistently shocks me about these times when violence and death touches our community is how easily our school goes into mourning. Counselors converge on to the campus; a room is reserved for grief and mutual support; posters and cards are made. We grieve and move on. Two or three or four times every year we do this. It’s a normal part of our school year.

On Tuesday, we evacuated classes. What made this unusually for me was the fact that the evacuation was a result of a gas leak in one of the buildings. Typically, when we evacuate, it is because of a bomb threat.

I want to share these two stories to make this point: Teachers are not trained to handle the emotional toll that is working in a high-needs school.

Whether they were university trained, TFA’ers, or products of some other alternative-credential program - teachers are trained in lesson planning, assessment, and classroom management. They are not trained in crisis management. They are not trained in grief counseling. They are not trained in the kind of self-care that teachers in high-needs schools require if one is to maintain one’s sanity and sense of hope. I think that until my new colleagues are trained in these skills before they begin teaching down the hall from me, I will continue to watch that revolving door spin.

In the meantime, I keep my room open. I keep the coffee and tea hot. I keep a hug and a sympathetic ear ready. It’s all I can do to help support my colleagues who never dreamed that this is what their job would be when they decided that they wanted to teach.

Responses From Readers


I worked in a high poverty urban setting for 10 years.... I stayed because of the leadership, support and love that was shown to all.... So I would say that the key to keeping teachers in high poverty areas would be leadership - a real leader who supports teachers, sets high standards for learning and who is truly involved in the school... someone who really knows the students.... support also comes in a lot of forms.... teachers need time to collaborate and learn together....


I currently teach in the inner city and as much as I enjoy teaching, this setting is making me question myself as a teacher. Teachers leave due to very little parent support, poor relations with the students, administrators who have forgotten what it is like and criticize rather than support, and so much more.


Why do teachers leave high poverty schools? To stay you have to become numb or enjoy having your heart broken daily. It is too much to bear witness to.

With today’s testing mandates, and with students’ scores equaling teacher ratings and employment, no one will stay. No one.

Until we admit that being in poverty, being stressed, being hungry, being hurt, being sad, impacts your ability to learn, nothing will get better.

I’d like to go back into the neighborhood I started my career in, after I retire. When I am not required to produce quantifiable results anymore, I might be able to go back to changing some lives, and doing what really is important.


The first time I left a high poverty school was because I was assaulted by students and put in the hospital twice in two months. These were fifth grade students. They were not my students, however. I have always been fortunate enough to establish a fabulous rapport with my students and their parents no matter where I teach. However, I could not stay where I felt so unsafe.

The second time was a because we did not get any support for behavior problems. We were basically told that if our kids were misbehaving, it was something we as teachers were doing wrong. I had students in my class who were exposed to the most horrific events at home and were somehow supposed to come to school with no extra support from counselors or administration and act as if nothing bad had happened. One of my poor students had a father who committed the first homicide of the year in our city that year. I couldn’t stay there because I didn’t feel I could do enough for my kids.

I am now at a high poverty school with a wonderful team of teachers. We all come together to help each other out so we are able to give our kids more of what they need. We have outside counselors we can call in and we have a system in place to get help for kids with serious needs. There are still many gaps in the system and some poor students still fall through the cracks. However, it is much better than any other school I’ve ever been in that is high poverty.


I spent three years teaching [in an inner-city school] --never being good enough, never getting timely feedback, with my administration doing the “next new thing” every time they heard about it, changing every aspect of my and my students’ days together every few weeks. There was no time to TEACH because I was constantly backtracking and trying to go back and fix things to make people who would never be happy, happy. I spent every day of my first year after school in my mentor’s classroom sobbing for an hour before I could go back to my classroom and get started re-doing all of the plans I’d spent the prior weeks creating.

I needed support. I needed mentorship. I needed consistency in both expectations and planning. I needed the opportunity to do what I was hired to do. I needed to be treated like a professional.

Many teachers responded via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect their replies:

Thanks to Liam and David, and to many readers for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be publishing comments from readers next week.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and it’s Routledge’s turn now.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting the next “quesiton-of-the-week” in a few days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.