A stable teaching staff is crucial to a school’s academic success, but we found that thousands of the city’s most vulnerable children attend Philadelphia schools where teachers shuffle in and out at destabilizing rates — 25 percent is cause for alarm, experts say.
Our investigation found 26 district schools that have lost at least 25 percent of their teachers for four years straight or lost more than one-third in each of the last two school years. Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor and expert in school staffing, called these findings “appalling.”
Schools beset by turnover typically fill their openings with teachers new to the district. More than half of the teachers who currently work at the 26 schools have less than four years of experience in the system. At Jay Cooke Elementary School, for example, which has a faculty of 30, more than 130 teachers have worked there in just seven years.
Many new teachers leave because they feel they don’t get adequate coaching and support. Then they’re replaced by recruits just like them, and the cycle begins again.
Schools with staff churn also get teachers who were pushed out of their old assignments through the “force transfer” process, which gives principals the power to remove teachers for misconduct or poor performance, or because of changing enrollment. But it also guarantees those teachers jobs in a different school, which often ends up being those with high turnover. Sometimes, teachers choose to leave schools because of poor leadership, with some teachers saying principals who fail to keep order or motivate them can drive them away.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. spelled out the district’s belief in strong leadership in an “action plan” that pledged, in part, to fill 100 percent of schools with “great” principals. Deputy chief talent officer Terri Rita said the school system is increasingly focused on principal quality. However, teachers say concern about leadership is still the number-one reason they quit, according to an exit survey of departing employees.
District officials also said that they are working to aggressively recruit teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, and that they have revamped their human resources department, assigning “talent partners” to work directly with principals to help find top recruits. They say their work is hampered by a national shortage of certified teachers.
Teachers often say they feel they don’t have enough resources to succeed. This makes sense. The overwhelming majority of district students live in poverty, and the gap between funding for wealthy and poor districts in Pennsylvania is larger than anywhere else in the country, according to an analysis of federal education data. A lawsuit before the state Supreme Court alleges that the way schools are funded in the commonwealth is illegal and demands a judicial remedy on behalf of districts like Philadelphia. Plus, the district is still recovering from a 2013 financial crisis that forced it to close a raft of schools and lay off hundreds of teachers.