The Canary in the Classroom: Teacher Turnover in DC Schools

Hello! This is Ruth Wattenberg’s State Board of Education website through which she keeps Ward 3 and DC residents informed of DC news and events.  For her campaign website, visit

On this site, you can see the current post, below, on the serious teacher turnover problem faced by DC schools.  The State Board of Education just released a report on the important topic.  On the right navigation, you can find links to previous newsletters.  On the top navigation, you can find information about Ruth and a variety of DC education issues, including documents from past issues, e.g. documents on the fight to adequately fund Wilson High School; to prevent the surplussing of Hardy School until another space is identified that can house the ever-growing number of  Ward 3 students, whose schools are already operating at over-capacity; to properly report on the achievement of all of our students, and especially that of our lowest income students; and more.  Other buttons connect to various articles and documents on the need for and ideas to promote stronger, independent research on DC education issues.

The Canary in the Classroom: Teacher Turnover in DC Schools:  A new report from the DC State Board of Education

Teacher turnover is the “canary in the classroom,” alerting us, as the canary in the coalmine did until a few decades ago, to unhealthy conditions in our schools.  As education researcher Andy Hargreaves has written, “Fulfilled learners don’t come out of a system of frustrated and unfulfilled teachers.”

Members of the State Board of Education (SBOE) have been hearing consistently that teacher turnover rates were way too high and impeding good education.  Last summer, a number of teachers and advocates across the city testified before the SBOE on the issue.

Amazingly, neither DC Public Schools, the charter school board, or the Office of the State Superintendent of Education systematically collect and maintain these data.  So discussions about this important issue largely revolved around individual stories and anecdotes.  Earlier this year, the State Board commissioned Mary Levy, a long-time DC schools researcher to prepare a report on teacher turnover. Here’s what she found:

  • 18-19% of teachers* leave DCPS (DC Public Schools) annually, 5-6 points higher than in other urban districts and roughly 10 points higher than the national average.
  • At the school level, in both DCPS and across the charter school sector, the average annual turnover rate has been consistently over 25%. In other cities the average is 16-19% annually. Nationally, the range is about 16%.
  • In schools where more than 60% of students are at-risk**, the rate is over 30% per year! In comparison, the rate, 18% is about half that in schools with the fewest number of AR students.
  • Among principals, the turn-over rate is also close to 30% in schools with over 80% at-risk students.
  • 55% of DCPS teachers leave the system compared to 45% in other urban systems.


Why this is a huge problem:

            Two summers ago, after some 20% of the teachers at Wilson High School left, I worked with my Ward 8 colleague on the State Board of Education, Markus Batchelor, to prepare an article for City Paper that explored teacher turnover in DCPS. Here is part of what we wrote:

“Teacher turnover is bad for learning, for many reasons. Kids are constantly getting brand new, inexperienced teachers (not every departing teacher is replaced by a newbie, but with such constant flux, most surely are.) Study after study shows that first-year teachers are the least effective, followed by second- and third- teachers. After year three, teaching quality improves more slowly, though it continues to grow.  In DCPS, nearly a quarter of first year teachers leave after their first year and 46 percent after two years.  Meaning: We are virtually assuring that large portion of our students each year—and an even larger portion in our highest-poverty schools-will be taught by the least effective teachers.

“Moreover, new teachers do their best and improve most quickly when they’re part of a supportive, stable, professional community in their school.  When turnover is this high, we can assume this culture is very weak and that these new teachers get even less support…

“[T]he high turnover is also the canary in the classroom. Teachers leave schools in high number when they feel they can’t be successful.  Some teachers point to individual school leaders as the problem. But in many cases, the trouble lies with the school district itself and the mandates from the central office that deprive school staff, administrators, and principals of needed autonomy Teachers feel like cogs in a machine, constantly trying to decide whether to do what they think is right for their students or what they know will look good on school reports and their own evaluations…”

As researchers John Papay and Matthew Kraft wrote, “The same unsupportive working environments that may motivate teachers to leave a school also constrain their ability to be effective with students.”

*for the purposes of this report, “teacher” includes nonteaching professional staff, including psychologists, social workers, etc.  When measured separately, the actual rates for teachers and non-teaching professional staff are virtually the same.

**defined as students who are homeless, in foster care, eligible for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or in high school and 2 years behind.


Photos from Back to school season!

Here is a little of what I saw late this summer when I visited Ward 3 schools with DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, on her back-to-school Inspection Tours.   The collection starts with my favorite: A deer jumping over the fence at Stoddert!


—–For up to date info on DC education and related events, follow me @ruth4schools.

Have a wonderful school year!!!