12/07/2012 06:19 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

When Teachers Leave, Students Lose Out

By Alexandra Fuentes

Seniors at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., where I've taught biology for four years, have begun to ask me for recommendation letters for college. I enjoy reflecting on each student's growth as I write those letters. But I am also struck by a jarring reality--the senior class has only one remaining science teacher to ask for recommendations; all the others have left.

This level of teacher attrition is not unique to my school. D.C. Public Schools lose 12 percent of their top-performing teachers each year. By the time entering freshman graduate, 40 percent of that group of top teachers will have left DCPS. A recent report from TNTP offers strategies to retain top-performing teachers, and acknowledges that DCPS has made progress with exiting low-performers. These strategies are important, but their study has a significant oversight: by focusing on the best and worst teachers, they give schools permission to disregard the loss of effective teachers. We must hold schools accountable for retaining the best teachers and for developing effective teachers into top performers. How do we do that?

1. It starts with convincing principals that teachers are not easily replaceable.

I often wonder how much more successful my student Darrel would be if his 10th grade English teacher--who had been able to inspire him to do his best work--had stayed. Students lose out when the teachers with whom they built relationships are no longer there, yet TNTP found that retention is not a top priority for more than two-thirds of DCPS principals. When I considered leaving Chavez to teach in DCPS, my principal convinced me to stay. I wish that kind of conversation would happen with all top-performing and effective teachers who consider leaving, but only ten of the more than thirty teachers the senior class started with are still here.

2. Schools must focus on developing effective teachers into top performers.

Two years ago, Chavez Schools held a roundtable discussion to ask us how to increase retention. More than anything, teachers wanted the school to help us help students learn. Chavez Schools responded by giving us more planning time than the national average, putting teacher leaders in charge of professional development, and making constructive feedback an integral part of the teacher evaluation system. Last month, my principal and I used data from my evaluation to create goals that will help me become a more effective teacher.

Chavez Schools are doing many of the low-cost retention strategies that TNTP recommends. The Board and top leadership have made teacher retention one of their top goals. Why then, despite significant improvements, are teachers in my school still finding the working conditions unsustainable and starting to seek other jobs in education?

3. Schools must involve teachers in decision-making; survey data is not enough.

Rather than merely survey teachers for ideas, schools must establish working groups of teachers to respond to key issues of leadership, workload, and school culture. That would send the message that school leaders trust and view teachers as capable, talented professionals. Cities and districts that have worked with teachers as equal partners have achieved unprecedented success in attracting and retaining teachers in the lowest performing schools. More recently, a working group of teachers from cities nationwide, convened by Teach Plus, published a report with actionable recommendations to increase retention in public charter schools.

When teachers are not empowered to make changes in schools that would enable us to better serve our students, teachers leave and students lose out. It's time schools across the nation make it a priority to keep and develop their effective teachers and to involve teachers in that process.

Alexandra Fuentes teaches biology at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.