Study Finds Urban Schools Often Neglect Top Teachers While Keeping Weaker Ones

NEW YORK, NY— A new study finds that urban schools are systematically neglecting their best teachers, losing tens of thousands every year even as they keep many of their lowest-performing teachers indefinitely—with disastrous consequences for students, schools, and the teaching profession.

The study by TNTP, a national nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that all students get excellent teachers, documents the real teacher retention crisis in America’s schools: not only a failure to retain enough teachers, but a failure to retain the right teachers.

The Irreplaceables, released at an event featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle, and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, spans four urban school districts encompassing 90,000 teachers and 1.4 million students. It focuses on the experiences of the “Irreplaceables”: teachers so successful at advancing student learning that they are nearly impossible to replace. Schools rarely make a strong effort to keep these teachers despite their success—and rarely usher unsuccessful teachers out.

As a result, the best and worst teachers leave urban schools at strikingly similar rates. The nation’s 50 largest districts lose approximately 10,000 Irreplaceables each year. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are less effective at advancing academic progress than the average first-year teacher.

“America’s best teachers are truly irreplaceable,” said Secretary Duncan. “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.”

The study attributes negligent retention patterns to three major causes:

1. Inaction by school principals. Less than 30 percent of Irreplaceables plan to leave for reasons beyond their school’s control. Simple strategies, like public recognition for a job well done, boost their plans to stay by as many as six years. Yet two-thirds indicated that no one had encouraged them to return for another year. Similarly, principals rarely try to counsel out low performers, even though replacing them with a brand-new teacher will immediately achieve better academic results 75 percent of the time.

2. Poor school cultures and working conditions. Schools that retain more Irreplaceables have strong cultures where teachers work in an atmosphere of mutual respect, leaders respond to poor performance, and great teaching is the priority. Turnover rates among Irreplaceables were 50 percent higher in schools lacking these traits.

3. Policies that impede smarter retention practices. A number of policy barriers hamper principals from making smarter retention decisions. Because of inflexible, seniority-dominated compensation systems, for example, 55 percent of Irreplaceables earn a lower salary than the average low-performing teacher.

The report notes that current retention patterns stymie school turnaround efforts and prevent the teaching profession from earning the prestige it deserves. It offers two major recommendations:

1. Make retention of Irreplaceables a top priority. Districts should aim to keep more than 90 percent of their Irreplaceables annually, monitor and improve school working conditions, pay the best teachers what they’re worth and create new career pathways that extend their reach.

2. Strengthen the teaching profession with higher expectations. Leaders at all levels should set a new baseline standard for effectiveness: Teachers who cannot teach as well as the average first-year teacher should be considered ineffective and dismissed or counseled out (unless they are first-year teachers). Policymakers should change teacher hiring and layoff policies that discourage schools from enforcing higher expectations.

“Our schools should be obsessed with keeping their best teachers.  But today it appears that they are almost completely oblivious to them,” said TNTP President Tim Daly. “It’s degrading to teachers and their profession. The challenge now is to address both sides of this crisis: the neglect of our best teachers, and the indifference to performance that keeps unsuccessful teachers in the classroom for too long.”

For more on the report, click here.


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.

Learn More About TNTP