A teacher is a teacher is a teacher…except when she’s not

| National Council on Teacher Quality | Kate Walsh and Arthur McKee

Last year some senior officials in a big urban district had a great idea for Teacher Appreciation Week. They decided that the superintendent should call star teachers working in the toughest schools to personally thank them for their service. The superintendent was totally game but the plan fizzled. Too many people, including school principals, were uncomfortable with the very notion of singling out some teachers for recognition. “All of our teachers work hard,” the superintendent was told, “it will cause problems to honor just a few of them.”

If this story surprises you, read TNTP's great new study,The Irreplaceables.

For this report, TNTP took a close look in four urban school districts at the group of teachers it terms irreplaceables: the top twenty percent of teachers who help their students make two to three more months of learning gains than average. It also looked at the bottom twenty percent of teachers. Comparing the attrition rates of both groups, TNTP found that they were basically the same. And no wonder: when TNTP surveyed both groups of teachers, it found that their principals and district officials treated them basically the same. Two-thirds of the districts' best teachers weren't even encouraged to return another year.

The report has some discomforting findings, particularly on what to do about poor performing teachers. Gloves off, TNTP shows that these teachers will never improve enough to keep them in the classroom, even after getting the professional development that many claim is all that struggling teachers need. Nor can districts just wait for poor performers to select themselves out of the profession: three-quarters of them told TNTP that they weren't planning on leaving their school in the near future, and half said they intend to stay in the profession for another decade. These “lemons” aren't dancing, they're standing pat.

Superintendents thus have no choice but to replace their worst teachers, even if it means hiring brand new teachers, because even the average novice is more effective than the poor performers in their classrooms.

But the report also shows that the departure of our best teachers from the classroom is not as intractable as people think it is, and that districts that could make headway against the issue would have an effective school turnaround strategy. If principals simply gave their best teachers regular feedback, identified leadership opportunities for them, publicly recognized their accomplishments, and employed other, basic HR tactics, they could significantly reduce the attrition rate. True enough, most districts and states still have policies that make it difficult or even impossible to pay our best teachers more. But there is much that districts and principals could and should do at very little cost to stanch the flow of our best teachers out of their classrooms.

Fortunately for our students, TNTP's report The Irreplaceables will probably not go as ignored as the teachers for which it is named all too often are.

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.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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