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One in four Philly teachers exit their schools each year

Such churn can destabilize schools. Half of the departing teachers leave the District entirely, but many just transfer to other schools in the city.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

An average of 27 percent of Philadelphia District teachers leave their schools at the end of the year, either transferring to another school or leaving the District – and sometimes the profession – entirely, according to a new report. The study, from the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) and Research for Action, looks at 2009-10 through 2015-16.

Such mobility can be positive as teachers seek a better fit for their talents, but it can also be destabilizing for students and school communities, the report notes.

“Recent research has shown that, on average, teacher mobility negatively affects student achievement,” it states, citing a 2017 study on teacher churn. “These negative effects occur, in part, because there is a learning curve for new teachers.”

Many of the departing teachers simply retire. But over the years of the study, the mobility rate of first-year teachers was over 50 percent and rivaled that of 30-year veterans eligible for retirement. Math, science, and English teachers were more mobile than other teachers, although all grades, levels, and subjects were affected.

Teachers who move from one school to another within the District are likely to go to a school with a different demographic profile: fewer students of color, fewer low-income students, and higher math and language arts test scores. This trend is “consistent with national patterns,” the report notes.

“Over time, without sustained attention to incentives to keep effective teachers in the most disadvantaged schools, this mobility can result in the most disadvantaged schools having consistently high staff turnover and a large number of novice teachers each year,” the report says.

Mobility levels were highest in 2010-11, when the District converted several low-achieving schools to charters, and in 2012-13, when, facing a so-called “doomsday” budget, the District closed two dozen schools and laid off thousands of employees. In those years, the mobility rate exceeded one-third.

From PERC report: “Teacher Mobility in the School District of Philadelphia, 2009-10 through 2015-16

The researchers analyzed annual databases available on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website that list all teachers in the state. The database includes the teachers’ level of experience, school, gender, specialty, salary, and position.

Refuting a commonly held assumption, the researchers found that relatively few District teachers left to go to a charter school or a nearby district. They were more likely to either leave teaching entirely (at least within Pennsylvania) or move to another District school.

“Teachers with 1-3 years’ experience are over-represented among teachers who exited SDP or transferred to another SDP school,” the report notes. “Some of this mobility may be normal and beneficial, as teachers seek school assignments that best match their skills, but some of this mobility may be the result of difficult teaching assignments or lack of support for new teachers.”

The authors of the report, led by Matthew Steinberg of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Ruth Curran Neild of PERC, note that such mobility also has “substantial economic costs” because districts must spend more money on recruiting and screening new applicants to deal with the constant churn.

This mobility also has “the potential to concentrate the most effective and experienced teachers in schools that serve more advantaged students, leaving hard-to-staff schools struggling to fill critical vacancies,” according to the report.

In response, District officials pointed to their efforts to recruit and retain teachers.

“As the study shows, our school system is facing many of the same challenges as other urban school districts, including the issue with early career teachers,” said a statement from District spokesman Lee Whack. “However, through our revamped New Hire Orientation and our focus on teacher coaching, we are making every effort to ensure that our classroom leadership are equipped to help our students learn and grow, and that we reduce teacher mobility when appropriate.”

At the end of the orientation period last month, Superintendent William Hite told the new hires that the District must “change from a recruitment to a retention conversation. I want all of you to be here for us, for as long as you can.” He did not address movement from one school to another within the District.

The District has a voluntary transfer program in which teachers can apply for vacancies in other schools – a contractual provision that the District supports as one that helps retain teachers in the system. As far as adopting a policy that might reduce transfers, the District says that more research is needed.

Some transfers are also “involuntary,” triggered by enrollment changes in a school.

Internal District research, based on exit interviews, indicates that 67 percent of the teachers who leave the District are from elementary schools, 21.6 percent from high schools and 8.5 percent from middle schools. That research also backs up the PERC report’s findings: The turnover rate for teachers with one to three years of experience is 27.7 percent, while it is 31.1 percent for those with more than 20 years of experience.

Those exit interviews also asked teachers why they were leaving. The top four reasons were: to pursue an opportunity in a different field, pursue an opportunity with a different educational organization, leadership and management style, and relocation.

Officials at the teacher orientation this year noted that the District is stepping up its academic peer coaching for all new teachers and assigning them mentors.

According to the PERC report, the share of teachers who left for jobs in other Pennsylvania districts is very small, although it doubled between 2012-13 and 2013-14 from 1.6 percent to 3.7 percent. The report authors said this was “perhaps” due to the lack of a teachers’ contract, but it could also have been due to the closings and layoffs, which happened at the end of the 2013 school year.

Between 2009 and 2015, an average of about 15 percent of teachers left the District annually, ranging from 10.7 percent in 2013-14 to 18.9 percent in 2010-11. In a typical year, less than 1 percent left for a charter school or for a public school outside the city.

Almost half of the 475 teachers who left District schools for charters during the period studied exited in 2010-11, the researchers found. That was the year the District began the Renaissance schools initiative, in which low-achieving schools were converted to charter schools.

But excluding that year, an annual average of just 44 teachers left the District for charters. The most popular destinations were the former District schools that became Renaissance charters, including Olney High and Stetson Middle, both run by Aspira, Mastery-Gratz, and Universal Audenried.

For teachers who leave to teach in other districts, Upper Darby was the most popular destination, with 25 teachers moving there.

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