Examining the Root Causes of Black Teacher Attrition in Philly Schools

Teacher diversity yields benefits for all students1. Yet, there is a stark disparity between the proportions of students of color and teachers of color across Pennsylvania schools, including in Philadelphia. While an overall teacher shortage has garnered recent attention, the decline in Black teachers is not new. In fact, a 2018 news story documented that a notable decrease in the percentage of Black teachers in Philadelphia schools began in the early 2000s.

Despite this significant attrition, discussions around diversifying the teacher workforce often center around expanding access—through recruitment, pre-service teacher education, and certification pathways—which is an important part of the pipeline. But efforts to diversify the teacher workforce must also grapple with the exodus of Black teachers.2 Existing research on Black teacher-leavers attributes much of this attrition to hostile racial climates inside schools.

These studies have found that many Black teachers report spending a lot of their time responding to and interrupting racism and racial microaggressions from White colleagues3. Such racism reportedly takes a toll on Black teachers’ (and other teachers of color) well-being and retention. Both macro and micro manifestations, including colorblindness or the ignoring of racial difference contribute to a climate that is hostile for Black teachers and other teachers of color4.

For example, some Black teachers report feeling the burden of raising issues related to racial justice or being the only one of very few staff committed to racial equity work in their school. Black teachers often feel responsible for helping their Black students navigate systems of White supremacy and racial hostility within the school building itself5. Black teachers also report feeling more heavily scrutinized while simultaneously unsupported by school leadership as well as feeling isolated from their White colleagues6.

It is not surprising that this cumulative toll of working in a school fraught with racism contributes to racial minority teachers leaving the field each year at a rate that is 24% higher than their White counterparts7. And it then becomes critical that efforts to recruit teachers must be accompanied by intentional shifts within school and school district culture to transform inhospitable and hostile racial climates that Black teachers encounter. Our efforts to diversify the workforce must keep these experiences in mind and work to improve the working conditions of Black teachers and other teachers of color.

Despite the research referenced above there remains a dearth of research on voices of Black teachers (and other teachers of color) regarding their own retention and attrition decisions. And few have examined what unique circumstances in Philadelphia schools are specifically contributing to Black teacher attrition.

Currently, I am leading a new, citywide study to expand our understanding of why so many Black teachers have left the teaching profession in Philadelphia. This study will examine what systemic factors—from the school to district to policy level—contribute to Black teacher attrition in Philadelphia and what specific supports, systems, and resources are needed to support retention and curb attrition of Black teachers. Additionally, on April 23rd, RFA will be convening a citywide Teach-In at FDR park focused on highlighting local efforts to diversify the educator workforce, featuring Dr. Camika Royal, Associate Professor of Urban Education at Loyola University Maryland, and Sharif El-Mekki, founder of The Center for Black Educator Development.

Through this combined work we hope to advance the field and community’s understanding of the struggles that Black teachers have experienced and provide actionable recommendations for school leaders, policymakers, and advocates interested in building a citywide strategy that can address barriers in both recruitment and retention strategies and ultimately increase educator diversity in Philadelphia schools.

If you or someone you know is a current or former Black teacher in Philadelphia public schools and would be interested in participating in RFA’s study, please fill out this form. For more information about the Teach-In, you can register here.

  1. Nevarez, C. Jouganatos, S. M., &Wood, J.L. (2019). Benefits of teacher diversity: Leading for transformative change. Journal of School Administration Research and Development, 4(1), 24-34.
  2. Brown, E. (2019). African American teachers’ experiences with racial micro-aggressions. Educational Studies, 55(2), 180-196; DeCuir-Gunby, J. T., & Gunby Jr, N. W. (2016). Racial microaggressions in the workplace: A critical race analysis of the experiences of African American educators. Urban Education, 51(4), 390-414; Duncan, K. E. (2019). “They Hate on Me!” Black Teachers Interrupting Their White Colleagues’ Racism. Educational Studies, 55(2), 197-213.
  3. Brown, E. (2019). African American teachers’ experiences with racial micro-aggressions. Educational Studies, 55(2), 180-196
  4. Kohli, R. (2018). Behind school doors: The impact of hostile racial climates on urban teachers of color. Urban Education, 53(3), 307-333.
  5. DeCuir-Gunby, J. T., & Gunby Jr, N. W. (2016). Racial microaggressions in the workplace: A critical race analysis of the experiences of African American educators. Urban Education, 51(4), 390-414; Duncan, K. E. (2019).
  6. “They Hate on Me!” Black Teachers Interrupting Their White Colleagues’ Racism. Educational Studies, 55(2), 197-213.
  7. Kohli, R. (2018). Behind school doors: The impact of hostile racial climates on urban teachers of color. Urban Education, 53(3), 307-333.

Leana Cabral’s post was originally published on the Research for Action’s website. Leana joins RFA’s qualitative research team as a Research Associate. She serves on the Out-of-School Time (OST) Coordination: Infrastructure for Supporting Healthy OST Ecosystems project which explores how city level OST coordination can contribute to community, family, and youth resilience moving forward from the COVID-19 pandemic into the future. She is also leading the Educator Diversity study, examining the root causes of Black teacher attrition in Philadelphia and promising practices in teacher diversification efforts.

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