Why do high-performing teachers leave? Data from Washington, D.C.

Teacher quality is acknowledged, nearly universally, as one of the most important contributors to student learning. Debate revolves around how to best train, hire, improve, support, and retain teachers. This last point is especially relevant to a large urban school district like District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), which sees 8 percent of its “effective” and “highly effective” teachers leave every year. This is a significant loss—financially and in human capital. A recent report from Bellwether Education Partners presents results of a DCPS-administered exit survey and extracts recommendations for it and other urban school districts about how to retain quality educators.

The survey was administered to 1,626 teachers departing the district between February 2015 and January 2018 and asked their reasons for leaving, their next career moves, and how DCPS might have kept them. Researchers disregarded answers from teachers who were retiring and moving, and from teachers who said no change would have retained them. Of the remaining respondents, 772 self-reported their last rating according to the district’s teacher evaluation system: 69 identified themselves as minimally effective, 220 as developing (these two categories comprise “low performers”), 319 as effective, and 164 as highly effective (these two comprise “high performers”). Researchers Kaitlin Pennington and Alexander Brand disaggregate responses by performance band to focus on the reasons effective and highly effective teachers gave for leaving.

One notable finding is that work-life balance was the most common reason for leaving given by high performers: 40 percent cited it among their top three, and 28 percent rated it as their number one reason. Pennington and Brand note that one-fifth of the latter group, mostly teachers in their early thirties, listed schedule flexibility as a retention tool that might have kept them, and about half of those mentioned wanting to spend more time with family, particularly young children.

School leadership was another frequently cited issue, reported by 34 percent of high performers. Those who gave it as their number one reason for leaving listed recognition, behavioral support, and instructional support from school leaders as the top three retention efforts that might have kept them in the classroom.

Results of the survey indicate that teachers are interested in leadership opportunities of their own, with 12 percent of high performers headed to a leadership opportunity in their next role. Interest in leadership stood out as a factor among high performers of color, 19 percent of whom listed more leadership opportunities as the number one effort that would have retained them.

The report has some limitations, mostly created by the survey itself. Sample sizes are small, and results group all schools together, which makes it harder to note whether some issues are district-wide or are specific to grade bands, locations, or even individual campuses. For example, the 163 high performers who listed school leadership in their top three reasons for leaving might come from only a handful of DCPS’s 115 schools.

Nevertheless, the survey’s outcomes suggest potential areas of focus for DCPS and other urban districts. Retaining those who want to spend more time with family is a challenge; teaching, which is built around rigid routines and schedules, is especially resistant to the kind of flexibility new parents might want. But districts might, for instance, try job sharing for middle and high school teachers, in which two teachers both work half-days in one position, or offer extended multi-year unpaid leave and allow parents to return to the classroom after the hiatus. And teachers who depart because of lack of leadership opportunities might stay if offered supplemental school-level leadership roles or entry into a strong leadership pipeline.

Although DCPS already retains 92 percent of its high performers, efforts to keep more of the other 8 percent—investing in supportive principals, leadership opportunities, and sustainable workloads—would benefit the whole district. And the more we know about high performers through surveys such as this one, the better DCPS and other districts can craft strategies that both improve schools and keep strong teachers in the classroom.

SOURCE: Kaitlin Pennington and Alexander Brand, “Retaining High Performers: Insights from DC Public Schools’ Teacher Exit Survey,” Bellwether Education Partners (May 2018).

Emily Howell
Emily Howell Research Intern