As another school year draws to a close, 10 percent to 15 percent of Philadelphia teachers are wrapping up their first year in the job.
Unfortunately, based on recent trends, more than half of these new teachers are unlikely to be back in their same schools in September. Some will seek out a new school in the district and some will leave teaching all together. (Data also suggest that relatively few teachers will leave the school district in favor of a charter school or suburban district.)
A report published in September by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium found, on average, 27 percent of all teachers in the School District of Philadelphia exited their schools in a given school year. While this rate of movement is within range of other large city districts, a recent Inquirer investigation revealed that some schools have especially high teacher turnover rates.
Turnover rates are highest for new teachers (other than those reaching retirement age). In a situation in which many new teachers are choosing not to stay in their schools, the question arises: Are our newest teachers being adequately prepared for success in a Philadelphia classroom? The evidence would seem to suggest they are not.
While some teacher movement is normal and can be beneficial as newer teachers seek work environments aligned with their skills and interests, some research suggests that teacher turnover has harmful effects on student achievement. In addition, high teacher turnover is expensive. National research shows that teacher turnover is costing Pennsylvania between $30 million and $67 million per year. Equally important is the sense of community that is built among teachers, students, and families as teachers stay in a school for several years.
There are several factors that can impact a teacher’s decision to leave a position, including professional autonomy, principal leadership, collegial peers, and school culture.
Yet the role of teacher preparation should not be overlooked. A study by researchers at Temple University revealed that 72 percent of teachers surveyed felt that their teacher preparation programs did not prepare them to work in a city classroom. The teachers were graduates of eight different programs in the region.
The researchers found a disconnect between what teachers learned in teacher preparation and their experiences when they began a permanent position. Many survey respondents reported that they had not been exposed to the often challenging, high-poverty, low-performing school environments in which many of them were employed in their first year.
One teacher said, “Teachers are usually under the impression that the classrooms are going to be what the books are telling them, which is not true … Reality smacked me in the face.”
This is just the latest indication that it is time to retool the way new teachers are trained. We have seen notable signs of progress throughout the district, yet we cannot expect students to learn from unprepared teachers.
The good news is that our local colleges of education and school district are beginning to shape new paths for aspiring teachers who are committed to teaching in Philadelphia schools, and the William Penn Foundation is funding some of these efforts. For example, Temple University College of Education is aligning its early childhood education program with the needs and expectations of the district, so new teachers arrive on day one buoyed by more relevant and practical training.
Research for Action, an education research organization based in Philadelphia, is convening a series of work groups to help state leadership, colleges of education, and K-12 districts use the findings and recommendations of the latest research to strengthen teacher preparation and supports for new teachers early in their careers.
With support from the state and philanthropy, the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship Program came to Pennsylvania in 2018 and has begun recruiting candidates for its innovative teacher preparation program, guided by a commitment to diversity and equity. The program requires Fellows to teach for three years in the schools where they will have the greatest impact. Fellows receive the ongoing support and mentoring that research shows help new teachers succeed and stay. And, most importantly, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is working with teacher-preparation programs around the state to integrate these best practices as permanent elements.
Teacher preparation, recruitment, and retention are nuanced and challenging issues, especially in a school district the size of Philadelphia. We hope that continued attention will lead to even more action that better prepares teachers for their indispensable role in our city.
Elliot Weinbaum is program director for William Penn Foundation’s Great Learning grant-making program. A product of Philadelphia public schools, Weinbaum leads a team that supports efforts to improve teaching and learning from early childhood through high school.