Five Findings on Teacher Turnover and Access to Effective Teachers in the School District of Philadelphia

Five Findings on Teacher Turnover and Access to Effective Teachers in the School District of Philadelphia

Oct 13, 2020
Steven Malick and Erin Dillon
Five years after beginning teaching in a school in the district

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) partnered with REL Mid-Atlantic to better understand teacher turnover in the district and to examine how effective teachers are distributed across its schools. Having developed a strategic plan that set goals for retaining effective teachers, the district thought a deeper study of teacher turnover and access to effective teachers could yield insight on strategies to improve students’ achievement through improved access to effective teachers and lower turnover among effective teachers. We partnered with the district to take a closer look at its data to inform how it responds to turnover. Here, we share five findings that stood out to us from our research with the district:

  • Over a five-year period, almost three-quarters of the district’s teachers changed schools, and nearly half left the district entirely. These rates of turnover might sound high, but they are consistent with studies of turnover in other large urban districts (Papay et al., 2017). Whether these rates should be considered acceptable depends in part on which teachers leave and which teachers stay. If ineffective teachers leave the district and effective teachers stay, turnover could be beneficial. A silver lining in our analysis was that teachers rated as proficient or distinguished, the two highest levels of effectiveness, were more likely to stay in their school and in the district compared with their peers rated as failing or in need of improvement, the two lowest ratings.
  • Forty percent of teachers rated as failing or in need of improvement left their school each year, on average, but just 12 percent left the district. Although the SDP is retaining more of its highly rated teachers, many of the district’s lowest rated teachers continued to teach in the district but moved between schools. The district should consider investigating where its lowest-rated teachers move within the district. If teachers with lower evaluation ratings move from higher-performing to lower-performing schools, for example, this mobility could contribute to inequities in access to effective teachers within the district.
  • After accounting for other teacher and school characteristics, teachers who identified as Black were more likely to leave their school. An emerging body of research indicates that there are benefits to students who have a teacher who shares their racial or ethnic identity (Dee, 2004; Gershenson et al., 2016; Gershenson et al., 2017). Because of the high proportion of students of color in the district, the SDP might explore underlying reasons why Black teachers are more likely to leave, which could help identify strategies for improving retention of teachers of color.
  • School climate mattered more for highly rated teachers. Teachers were more likely to stay in schools perceived as having a more positive climate overall. This relationship was strongest for teachers rated proficient or distinguished, suggesting that school climate could be an important factor in why effective teachers stay in (or leave) a school.
  • Effective teachers were distributed unevenly throughout the district. On average, students experiencing poverty and students identifying as Black or Latinx had less access to effective teachers. In the district, the average effectiveness of teachers varied across schools—with some schools’ teachers rated as just above the threshold for proficient on average and other schools’ teachers rated as distinguished on average. This suggests that some schools have a larger share of less-effective teachers, and others have a larger share of more-effective teachers. Despite these sobering findings, the study identified a possible bright spot: Although students experiencing poverty are more likely to attend schools with less-effective teachers, they are not more likely to be assigned less-effective teachers within these schools. This suggests that raising average teacher effectiveness in these schools could help eliminate gaps in access to effective teachers by socioeconomic status or race, and it could help foster the district’s goal to eliminate gaps in student achievement.

The district faces new challenges not envisioned when we first began this study, including providing quality remote instruction during a pandemic while retaining its most effective teachers. Yet it also has an opportunity to consider innovative strategies that could help equalize access to effective teaching. For example, with remote learning, the district might be able to rethink teaching assignments without increasing class sizes or moving teachers to different schools to ensure that students who are historically underserved by the education system are more likely to have an effective teacher. Virtual formats can facilitate opportunities for teachers to learn from their peers and observe instruction from effective teachers without leaving their home. And schedules accommodating virtual learning might allow for time to focus on building professional learning communities and to support building a positive school climate. The pandemic has changed the meaning of being in school, and districts nationwide can use lessons from this study to make the most of this time to build an effective teaching workforce. To help, we’ve compiled resources across all 10 RELs on recruiting and retaining teachers.


Dee, T. S. (2004). Teachers, race, and student achievement in a randomized experiment. Review of Economics and Statistics, 86(1), 195–210.

Gershenson, S., Holt, S. B., & Papageorge, N. W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student-teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52(1), 209–224.

Gershenson, S., Lindsay, C. A., Hart, C. M., & Papageorge, N. W. (2017). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Paper No. 10630. Institute of Labor Economics.

Papay, J. P., Bacher-Hicks, A., Page, L. C., & Marinell, W. H. (2017). The challenge of teacher retention in urban schools: Evidence of variation from a cross-site analysis. Educational Researcher, 46(8), 434–448.

Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.

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