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A new study, “The Irreplaceables,” published several weeks ago by TNTP has received much media attention. The study examines the crisis faced by some urban school districts that are losing many top-performing teachers called “Irreplaceables,” while retaining a large number of low-performing teachers.

Researchers studied 90,000 teachers in four large urban school districts and a charter-school system. (The study did not include School District 65 or School District 202.) About 20 percent of the teachers were “Irreplaceable,” – meaning they were so effective that they are nearly impossible to replace.

“Teachers of this caliber provide more engaging learning experiences for students and help them achieve five to six more months of learning each year than students of low-performing teachers – academic results that can be life-changing,” says the report.

Aside from their outstanding results in the classroom, the Irreplaceables “don’t fit a particular mold,” says the report. “They represent a wide range of experience levels and teaching styles. … In teaching as in any other profession, some people are more successful at their jobs than others.”

The Problem

“Knowing the power of great teachers, one would expect schools to be sharply focused on keeping far more of their best teachers than their lower performers,” says the report. Instead, “Schools retain their best and least-effective teachers at strikingly similar rates.”

The report quantifies the problem saying that 50 percent of all Irreplaceables leave within the first five years, “while too many struggling teachers remain for too long.” The study found that in the four school districts studied, “40 percent of teachers with more than seven years of experience are less effective at advancing academic progress than the average first-year teacher.”

The Causes

The report cites three causes for these “destructive retention patterns.”

First, “Principals make far too little effort to retain Irreplaceables or to remove low-performing teachers.” Eight simple strategies, such as giving positive feedback or public recognition for a job well done, have been effective in retaining Irreplaceables, says the report. Yet, most Irreplaceables said they had experienced fewer than two of the strategies, and two-thirds said “nobody even bothered to encourage them to return for another year.”

“Meanwhile, principals rarely attempt to dismiss or counsel-out chronically low-performing teachers,” says the report. Instead, the report found that most principals focus on developing the skills of low-performing teachers, “even though the average experienced low performer we studied remained less effective than an average beginning teacher even three years later.”

“Our analysis shows that, unfortunately, struggling teachers rarely improve – even when principals prioritize development,” says the report. And, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, poorly performing teachers rarely ‘self-select out.’”

Second, “Poor school cultures and working conditions drive away great teachers.” The study found that “at schools that retain high percentages of Irreplaceables, principals created cultures of respect and trust, but were also less likely to tolerate ineffective teachers. … Good teachers don’t leave demanding schools that hold them to high expectations; they leave schools that aren’t serious about good teaching.”

Third, “Policies give principals and district leaders few incentives to change their ways. … Most notably, they are hamstrung by lockstep teacher compensation systems that are hard-wired to undervalue great teaching. Because these systems award most raises for seniority and advanced degrees, about 55 percent of Irreplaceables earn lower base salaries than the average ineffective teacher.”

Compensation was one of the reasons most frequently cited by Irreplaceables for leaving their schools, says the report.

Recommended Solutions

The report says school districts must make retaining more Irreplaceables and fewer low-performing teachers a “top priority.”

First, the report recommends that school districts hire principals who have a strong vision of instruction and can get their teachers to buy in.

In addition, “Principals need to use evaluation results and other performance information to make smarter, more deliberate decisions about teachers they hire, develop and retain – and they need to see this as one of the most important parts of their job. … Retention of Irreplaceables and counseling-out of low performers should be a top priority for principals and a significant component of a principal’s evaluation.”

Another recommendation is to pay Irreplaceables what they are worth. The report recommends phasing out “quality-blind pay structures in favor of more flexible compensation systems that offer greater earnings potential for high-performing teachers early in their careers.”

To fund raises for Irreplaceables, the report recommends phasing out “automatic salary increases for factors that have no proven connection to a teacher’s success in the classroom, such as additional college course credits or advanced degrees. They will also need to reduce or phase out automatic increases for seniority.

“These transitions will be difficult, but districts cannot afford to award raises for ineffectiveness and still pay top teachers the raises they deserve,” says the report.

Third, “Principals and district leaders should give teachers frequent opportunities to share feedback about working conditions, and they should use the results to improve teachers’ day-to-day experiences,” says the report.