Fixing the Right Retention Crisis

How much teacher turnover constitutes a crisis?

It depends, of course, on how you define crisis. Nearly two years ago, we released a report on this issue called The Irreplaceables. In it, we noted: “Discussions of teacher turnover usually focus on how many teachers leave schools each year, without regard for their performance in the classroom. This oversimplification masks the real teacher retention crisis: not only a failure to retain enough teachers, but a failure to retain the right teachers.”

Making quality judgments about teacher retention based on one number—the percentage of teachers who leave or stay—doesn’t make much sense. It’s like basing a restaurant review solely on the size of portions, not whether the food is any good.

But the temptation to treat teachers as interchangeable for retention purposes is tough to shake, even if it is misguided. New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) did it just last week in a report that cited an “exodus of experienced teachers” from the city’s schools in recent years. As UFT President Michael Mulgrew remarked, “I don’t believe our school system is going to get better if we continue to lose half the teachers who walk into New York City schools.” Mayor de Blasio has made a similar argument in recent media appearances.

If only he would insert the word “strong” or “effective” or something to show that we care not just about warm bodies but about performance, I would be right there with him. Good schools cannot be run without good teachers, yet we let them slip out the door every day. We lose far too many outstanding early career teachers who could give us years of fantastic service. We lose amazing veteran educators who are pillars of their schools but don’t get the recognition or opportunities for advancement they deserve. There’s so much more we could do to fight for these teachers and keep them in our classrooms.

But here’s the thing: It’s a tragedy when an excellent teacher leaves a school, but it’s also a tragedy when a teacher who simply is not up to the job stays in place year after year. Turning a blind eye to quality and focusing on overall numbers doesn’t help students.

When we studied New York City’s retention patterns in 2012 for The Irreplaceables, we found that the city’s annual retention rate was 89 percent, which is actually high compared to other urban districts. But is that number good or bad? We just don’t know, because we don’t know who’s staying and who’s leaving.

That’s the question Mayor de Blasio and the UFT ought to be focusing on, if they’re serious about keeping good teachers in the city’s schools. There may well be a retention crisis. Let’s just hope they fix the right one, and keep the right teachers. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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