Echoing concerns voiced by teachers around the nation, Baltimore City teachers are overwhelmed by workloads that have grown exponentially and view central office staff as aloof and unresponsive, according to a report by the Fund for Educational Excellence released Wednesday.

Despite those obstacles, Baltimore City Public Schools teachers are not leaving the system in greater percentages than surrounding suburban districts. In fact, the city schools had fewer vacancies in 2022 than surrounding school systems. City teachers who are staying put said their commitment is an expression of their desire to help children in struggling neighborhoods and to reverse a negative narrative about the city.

The Fund, an independent nonprofit, interviewed a demographically representative sample of more than 200 teachers in 2022 and offered suggestions on how the city schools can retain more teachers and prevent a teacher shortage. Teachers were asked central questions about what would keep them teaching and what would push them away.

The report was the second installment of the Fund’s look at teacher retention, which found last summer that a quarter of Baltimore teachers were unsure whether they’d return next school year.

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The report said leaders should reduce what is described as an unsustainable workload, ensure principals are supporting teachers and work more collaboratively with teachers. Each of the recorded interviews was between 45 and 60 minutes, and the transcriptions were then analyzed by a dozen people at the Fund.

The city school system did not challenge the report’s findings. “We must continually find new ways to provide leadership and support to teachers in the face of increased challenges, including chronic underfunding, providing them with effective leaders, and managing their workload while raising the bar on student achievement,” the statement said. “Our next step is to build upon our teachers’ positive relationships at the school level.”

Zach Taylor, director of research and negotiations at the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the report underscores what the union believes: The city school system does not prioritize teacher retention or the factors that contribute to turnover, with exploding workloads and a lack of collaboration from school system leaders on its most pressing issues.

City teachers said their workload increased in recent years, particularly since the system began requiring every student to have an individual learning plan in 2021. The Fund recommends the city consider “rethinking the utility of student learning plans for every student,” saying that teachers do not believe they are useful to families. At the very least, the report said, school officials should provide teachers with a tracking and management system that doesn’t require teachers to pull data together manually from many sources for each student.

The Fund also suggests that one person serve as a gatekeeper at the central office on North Avenue so teachers aren’t given too many demands by different departments for data, documentation or training.

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“City schools urgently needs to streamline and pare down teachers’ administrative workload, and reassess timing and deadlines,” the report said.

Teachers also said there was a disconnect between expectations from district leadership and their everyday experience. They believe the central office staff have lost touch with what’s happening on a daily basis in schools. The Fund recommended that central staff be required to spend one day a month working at a school, and that teachers and central office staff work together to solve problems.

Teachers told the Fund they want more autonomy in the classroom. They say their lessons are too scripted and that they aren’t allowed to be creative enough in deciding how to teach the children in front of them whom they know best.

“Sometimes we have evidence that these things don’t work, but we’re still expected to continue to do these things that don’t work. It kind of kills teachers,” said LaToya Parker, a fifth grade teacher at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School in East Baltimore, in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. “That inner inspiration to try something different” is not encouraged in all schools. Every quarter, she said, she asks her students how they like to learn and what motivates them.

The annual rate that teachers left the system declined from 2013 to 2017, but it began to increase again in the city and everywhere else in Central Maryland in 2016. The attrition rate rose from 10% to 12% in 2022 in the city.

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Teachers are most likely to leave in their first three years in the system and after 30 years, the report said. But those numbers are significant. About 47% of city teachers leave their jobs within five years. The rate is about the same as that of Baltimore County and below that of Anne Arundel, which lost 55% of its teachers between 2017 and 2022.

A chart from the Fund for Educational Excellence’s report, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” shows that attrition rates are higher in Baltimore City than in some other Central Maryland school districts and the state overall. (Courtesy photo)

Some of the retention in the city is the result of competitive pay. Some teachers told the Fund that they felt their compensation was like “golden handcuffs” that kept them from leaving for another system even though they might be dissatisfied with their job.

That view was disputed by Taylor at the teachers union. “The view that teachers cannot earn as much elsewhere is becoming outdated — our top salaries are well below other Maryland school systems, and this year we’re falling far behind neighboring districts in starting pay,” he said.

City teachers are also particularly tied to their students.

Parker, a 17-year veteran of the city schools, said she graduated from Western High School and was a teen mother who overcame the odds to become a teacher. She stays in the city, she said, because children need “to see people like us from Baltimore do great things” and that despite having things stacked against you, it is possible to overcome that “horrible deficit narrative, but still come out of that. That is what keeps me here.”

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Parker and teachers interviewed for the report emphasized that principals are crucial to their job satisfaction. Berol Dewdney, a prekindergarten teacher at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School near Butchers Hill, said she feels support not only from the leadership in her school but from a group of schools like hers. The school is part of a network of city schools that have made strides in recent years, she said.

“Strong school leadership and systems that support collaboration” and connection among educators are important to school and student success, she said.

Teachers who left also expressed concerns about safety, both inside and outside school. They expressed the distress of having their students killed or affected by gun violence.

One high school teacher who was identified only as Tamara in the report told the Fund that she was frustrated at the difficulty she had in holding students to high standards and concerned that many students entered high school reading far below a ninth-grade level.

The report also calls for actions to recruit and retain Black teachers because research has shown that Black students do better academically and graduate at higher rates if they have had even two Black teachers. The Fund recommends that the school system invest in creating programs that help teachers who are conditionally certified to complete the necessary courses or requirements to become fully certified. Three-quarters of conditionally certified teachers in the system are Black.