Philly has a teacher turnover problem. Although challenges with teacher retention are not unique to Philadelphia, high teacher-turnover rates tend to be more drastic in large urban school districts that disproportionately serve high rates of low-income students and students of color. In 2018, a study by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) and Research for Action found that 27% of teachers in the District leave their school each year, a rate that is alarmingly high and deeply damaging for students and school communities.
There is no magical solution to the problem of teacher turnover in Philadelphia. However, at the same time, the District is not doing enough to combat it. In fact, I think the District engages in at least one process that might even be driving teachers out of its classrooms – namely, its practice of “leveling.”
In Philadelphia, “leveling” is when teachers are forcibly shuffled around from school to school as enrollment numbers settle within the first 21 days of student attendance each school year. Using enrollment data from the first 21 instructional days, the District shifts teachers around to fill remaining teaching vacancies by consolidating classes and sending the former teachers of those now-consolidated classes elsewhere.
For example, I could start teaching at School A on the first day of school, after having spent the entire summer planning to teach that specific class. If it turns out that the enrollment in that grade is much smaller than expected and my class can be combined with another one, while at the same time School B has an extra class with no teacher, the School District can move me (if I am the person with the least seniority) to School B. There I may teach a different grade, a different subject, in a community that I have no relationship with, starting with a group of students that has not had a teacher in the first 21 days of school.
The District sees the system as an efficient use of personnel. In 2018, it saved $11 million by not simply hiring to fill all the vacancies. But in reality, it’s harmful to students, and it ends up disproportionately affecting schools in poorer neighborhoods that have higher numbers of students of color, and it perpetuates existing educational and racial inequalities.
Leveling discourages young teachers from staying in the profession, negatively affects student achievement and school culture, and ultimately, is a serious civil rights issue. With the pressing inequities surrounding education, especially in the age of the pandemic, it’s time to address it.
The practice of leveling discourages new teachers and sets them up for failure. Because Philadelphia’s system “levels” the teachers with the least seniority, those who are at the earlier points of their careers bear the brunt of this system. Although it is sensible not to remove a senior teacher from a school where they have been for years, it also makes no sense to throw an early career teacher into a classroom to teach a subject that they may know very little about and then ask why nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.
Research finds that high rates of teacher turnover affect the entire school negatively, not just the students whose teachers leave. The first three years of teaching are the hardest because the teachers are making everything from scratch and trying everything for the first time. But imagine having to do your first three years over and over again because you keep getting leveled to a new school and a different subject or grade level.
That kind of instability, the dehumanizing effect of feeling like a cog in a machine, devoid of passion or expertise for a specific subject or grade level, and the helplessness of knowing that your students may be worse off after the sudden shift all add up, and it’s enough to make any of us question our career paths.
The School District desperately wants to attract high-quality teachers, but how can we do that when systems like leveling signal to new teachers that they are replaceable and that their success as teachers doesn’t matter?
Last year, I was nearly leveled from my 7th-grade language arts and social studies classroom to a 4th-grade math classroom. I tried to make light of the situation by joking about how awful it would be for the 4th graders who would have a teacher who had never taken a single class about teaching math.
Luckily, I was not leveled, but just knowing that it was a real possibility was enough to make me feel expendable and unvalued. It didn’t matter that I had a master’s degree in teaching social studies or that as part of my master’s I had worked for an entire year with a literacy coach on best practices for building a strong language arts curriculum. It didn’t matter that I grew up in the neighborhood I teach in and know its streets and history like the back of my hand. I was simply a number in a budget formula.
The Inquirer found in 2019 that for Philly schools, chronic turnover was also linked to low achievement. Leveling perpetuates an ever-churning system of teacher turnover. When class sizes increase as classes are combined, when students start the year with one teacher (or no teacher) and end it with another, when teachers are sent to schools in communities they have no personal relationship with, and when teachers are forced to teach a new course on a moment’s notice, it is hardly surprising that students in schools with high teacher turnover are not achieving as highly as schools with a steady teaching staff. Nor is it surprising that the schools least affected by teacher turnover are also often those that have fewer students of color. The system also incentivizes teachers to aim to teach in less-diverse schools with consistently large class sizes, where they are less likely to be leveled.
We’ve all been talking a lot about the myriad ways that the COVID-19 pandemic will perpetuate existing educational inequalities, and it’s been hard for all of us – parents, students, teachers, administrators – to find anything we can do to combat what seems inevitable. This is it. End leveling for the 2020-21 school year (or forever!).
There is so little that we can control today: We don’t know when a vaccine will be ready, we don’t know when this will end, we don’t know when businesses will reopen, or whether they will be able to stay open. But the District can control leveling for the 2020-21 school year, which is bound to be a record year for enrollment inconsistencies.
Why should neighborhood schools be punished because parents choose to keep their kindergartners home for a year? What sense does it make to level teachers and send them to a new school via Google Meet 21 days in, in a year when consistency and stability of relationships with kids may be more important than ever? If the practice of leveling continues this year, the District will be reinforcing and perpetuating a cycle of trauma built on inconsistent relationships. It does not honor the humanity of Philadelphia’s students or teachers, and it is likely to disproportionately affect schools with majority populations of Black and Indigent people and people of color.
We must put our money where our mouths are. We have to seize any opportunity we can to combat inequality, especially because it will be exacerbated by COVID-19. We can’t afford to lose passionate teachers within their first five years at the rate that we are. We have to do right by our students, teachers, and school communities.
Please, end leveling for the 2020-21 school year for teachers, for students, for families, for communities, and for equity.
Adina Goldstein is a 7th-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School. She is a proud product of the Philadelphia School District, with a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is in her third year of teaching.