Education Forward DC’s CEO Bisi Oyedele delivered the following testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee of the Whole at a hearing on the Teacher and Leader Turnover and Retention.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Council of the District of Columbia. Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today. My name is Bisi Oyedele and, in addition to being a resident of Ward 4 and parent of two public school students in the District, I am the Chief Executive Officer of Education Forward DC.
Education Forward DC envisions a DC where students starting furthest from opportunity can chart their own path and thrive. We accelerate the work of visionary education leaders to foster a city of high-quality, equitable public schools for every DC student and family by providing grants across the city, offering advisory support to our grantees, and coordinating work across sectors, schools, and organizations to deliver equitable, high-quality educational experiences for students. We believe DC can continue its progress and become a national model as the first city to guarantee every student access to an excellent education by focusing on pandemic recovery, growing high-quality public school options, addressing racial inequities, recruiting and retaining excellent leaders, and fostering equity-centered change. Over the next five years, we aim to double the proportion of schools providing students with the learning experiences they need to thrive.
We applaud the Council’s continued focus on the attraction and retention of great educators and leaders in the District of Columbia. As a former educator and principal, my experience and academic research tells us that students do best when they have great school leaders and excellent teachers invested in their success.
Over the years, Ed Forward has supported DC with ensuring a strong educator workforce – from supporting teacher preparation programs to principal development programs. We recently conducted a cross-sector landscape analysis to better understand what teacher and leader talent DC’s public schools need to recover from the pandemic.
There is no doubt that teacher and leader turnover is happening in DC schools and across the country – however this is not new with the pandemic. DC’s 88 percent annual teacher retention rate lags the national average of 92 percent, but that represents a slight improvement over pre-pandemic levels. We know that locally, there continue to be gaps in high-need subject areas like special education teachers and science teachers, and that some LEAs may be having higher turnover.
Let me now talk about leaders, because we know through our work at Ed Forward DC that great teachers stay and achieve great outcomes with quality, consistent school leadership – and the absence of strong leadership can be a major reason schools struggle and teachers leave.
While we have much more robust data on teacher talent through OSSE’s Educator Workforce Report, we have much less data available on leader preparation and turnover in DC, from school principals to executive directors of charter schools. We know that about 86 percent of leaders returned to their roles last year, but that of those who left, they tended to be early in their careers and report feeling unsupported and unprepared. Right now, we estimate that nearly half of DC school leaders are early in their careers, and therefore more susceptible to turning over.
Of particular concern is where this turnover is happening. Wards 4-8, especially Wards 7 and 8—where most of our students who are furthest from opportunity attend school—have seen the highest turnover rates for leaders and, not surprisingly, teachers. Furthermore, we know teachers who share lived experiences with students leads to improved academic and long-term life outcomes. However, Black teachers are the most likely to leave, and Latinx educators are underrepresented to start with.
The attention to this issue has become even more critical as DC seeks to recover from the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stabilizing our education ecosystem requires stability in our teachers and school leadership.
As part of our strategy, Education Forward DC is investing in preparing Black and Latinx education leaders; and building a strong leadership pipeline for the District’s schools, whether charter or DCPS. By 2026 we hope to have supported the creation of a robust pipeline of Black and Latinx school leaders who work to foster strong school communities.
We are also seeing great work from leaders and teachers to use what resources they can to improve the situation on the ground. There are school leaders who had strong talent practices prior to the pandemic who have had strong teacher retention, such as DC Bilingual which retained more than 85 percent of teachers last year, while on average schools in Ward 4, where DC Bilingual is located, retain only 76 percent of teachers. DC Bilingual has focused on ensuring high levels of teacher appreciation and autonomy, as well as a diverse, inclusive culture, to retain its staff.
Some school leaders are using ESSR funds to support teachers by providing appreciation activities or “stay” incentives. Others are supporting teacher mental health and wellness offerings tailored to educators. Still others are piloting more flexible roles for teachers. In spring 2022, we funded schools to pilot strategies that brought their teachers greater flexibility in an effort to boost teacher retention, including more flexible time, changes to student supervision, and improved collaboration, and improved planning time. While there was no clear solution to teacher sustainability, we learned that many teachers want improved conditions to support their work with students, not simply less work. This could mean higher-quality planning time, more opportunities for teacher collaboration, or improved coaching and other instructional support. That work sparked a conversation across partners across the city (and country) wanting to further support DC schools in expanding teacher flexibility.
Finally, Education Forward DC is proud of our grantees who recognize the importance of attracting, developing, supporting, and investing in strong educators and leaders. Today, I know you will also hear from some of those grantees and their exemplary work in this area. DC Bilingual, Washington Yu Ying, Statesmen Academy, E.W. Stokes, KIPP, Paul Public Charter School, Washington Leadership Academy and others fully appreciate the situation before us and are investing and innovating to support staff wellbeing and test new approaches. I’ll leave it to them to share their experiences and learning firsthand.
DC can continue to make progress to prepare, attract, and retain great teachers and leaders through better data, investments in preparation, and incentives. We can improve our understanding of the issue by collecting and sharing better data on leader preparation and retention, at every level and across sectors to develop more effective solutions. Schools could use increased resources to invest in leader and educator preparation and development through programs like residency training models—which are the gold standard for preparation—that are expensive, but extremely effective. Finally, we know that teachers and leaders often remain in DC when they leave their current jobs. Exploring new incentives to make DC affordable for teachers and leaders who want to stay here but who are unable to in their current role or school could go a long way to ensuring they remain where they are needed most.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share Education Forward DC’s thoughts on this important issue. Attracting, supporting and retaining the excellent leaders and dedicated educators who will help DC students achieve their vision of success for their own lives is deeply important to us and is a critical part of our schools recovery from the pandemic. By building a clear and comprehensive pipeline that prepares current and future school leaders we can build a DC school system that best serves our students.