As D.C. and its surrounding areas still struggle with teacher retention, activists and county officials comment on the effect it will undoubtedly have on students. (Photo courtesy of Associated Press / Andrew Harnik)

By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO

Since the pandemic, schools across the nation have suffered from increasing rates of teacher shortages. While a similar situation still holds true for schools in the Washington, D.C. area, this trend is nothing new to the region. The issue has plagued D.C. for a considerable amount of time, preceding the onset of the pandemic.

“D.C. already had the highest teacher turnover rate in the country, with 25-30 percent of educators leaving their schools each year,” said Scott Goldstein, founder and executive director of EmpowerEd, an organization that seeks to create an equitable education system in D.C. “With a new Washington Teacher’s Union (WTU) contract and higher pay for charter school educators as well, despite relatively strong salaries, D.C. has continued to implement policies that fail to retain educators.”

Goldstein is referring to the 2022 contract made between the WTU and D.C. Public Schools, which was agreed upon in order to stimulate teacher retention. The agreement included back pay, a 12 percent pay raise over four years, 4 percent retention bonuses and all benefits included. 

The agreement came soon after WTU determined that four out of five D.C. teachers are unhappy with their jobs, drawing from a survey of 629 of their union members.

In the 2022-23 school year, 70 percent of teachers were retained in the same school at which they taught, according to the office of the state superintendent of education. D.C.’s State Board of Education found that the District’s average annual school-level teacher attrition rate in both D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools are 25 percent, compared to a national average of 16 percent.

DCPS began the 2023-2024 school year with 98 percent of teacher positions filled and about 119 outstanding teacher vacancies across their 117 schools, DCPS told the AFRO.

“We anticipate that this vacancy number will continue to decrease by the day over the next few weeks,” a spokesperson said. “To ensure full classroom coverage on day one, we engaged our substitute workforce for support as we work to fill outstanding vacancies with qualified candidates from within our pipeline. Hiring and processing are still ongoing, and our candidate pipeline for School Year 2023-24 is robust.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has slightly more than 100 teacher vacancies, with 99 percent of their teaching positions filled, they told the Afro.

Goldstein, however, considers the problem of retention incredibly pressing. EmpowerEd is concerned with targeting the sources of this issue.

“Two years ago an American University study found the DCPS teacher evaluation system to be racially biased, yet two years later it remains virtually unchanged,” Goldstein told the AFRO. “From an evaluation system that creates fear instead of growth to an excessive amount of standardized testing and far too little teacher professional authority, we still aren’t doing what we need to do to retain educators.”

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has their own perspective as to why D.C. and its surrounding areas struggle to retain their teachers.

“Being a public school educator is increasingly challenging these days,” wrote Jennifer Martin, president of MCEA, in a statement. “The job expectations demand patience, knowledge of subjects, and a keen understanding of students and how they each best learn. The hours are long, the pay below that in other similar professions, and the working conditions are difficult.  And now we have become the target in political battles, so only people with real courage are willing to serve in our schools.”

EmpowerEd is pushing D.C.PS to implement varied solutions, some of which include flexible scheduling and targeted work to retain educators of color.

“We need to trust teachers in their classroom and with curricular decisions,” said Goldstein. “We need to reduce the amount of time and attention focused on standardized tests. We need teacher-led professional development and growth as well as leadership opportunities…And we can also do much more to reduce the cost of living impacts in a city like D.C. from housing for teachers to student loan forgiveness.”