Study: Providence school teacher retention rates declining, but doesn’t show ‘exodus’

PROVIDENCE – Declining teacher retention rates within the Providence Public School District over the last three years since the state takeover and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are not as drastic as what various news reports suggested during that time, according to a new study released Tuesday by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute.

The study by institute researchers Kate Donohue, John P. Papay, Nathanial Schwartz and Burke O’Brien titled “Sustaining the Teacher Workforce: Teacher Retention in Providence,” notes multiple trends in teacher retention, many of which the study says run counter to recent reporting on an “exodus” of teachers leaving PPSD schools. The study collected data up to the current 2021-22 academic year to outline patters of teacher retention within the district both prior and during the pandemic, and examined how such turnover contributes to both staffing challenges and opportunities for PPSD.

According to the study, an average of 94 classroom teachers either retired or exited the district each year before the pandemic. Then, in 2019-20, 140 teachers left PPSD and 157 left the following year.

That data, the study says, corresponds to a decrease in teacher retention rate from 91% to 90% based on more than 1,600 classroom teachers within PPSD. The study calls it “an important decline but not an exodus.”

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The study says PPSD’s retention rate, while below other Rhode Island urban school districts, is on par with nearby Massachusetts’ retention rate and slightly above Boston’s rate.

The study also shows that staffing challenges exist because more teachers are moving to non-classroom roles, such as being instructional coaches, administrators or guidance counselors, and going on extended leaves of absences. The study says the average number of teachers who exited for non-classroom roles more doubled the last two years (82), than from the 2016-17 academic year through the 2020-21 year (40). Also, the average number of teacher exits for leaves of absence went from 34 between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to 49 in 2020-21 and 2021-22, according to the study, an increase of 35%.

“Leaves of absence are particularly tricky for school staffing because teachers generally (and reasonably) maintain the right to their position. As a result, it is difficult for schools to hire permanent teachers to staff these classrooms,” the study says.

The study also says that it does not know if the pandemic caused some changes in the district’s teacher retention rates as the state takeover in 2019, district turnaround efforts and a new collective bargaining agreement with the Providence Teachers Union last year “all happened at the same time.”

The study says keeping talent in PPSD should be the district’s goal, recent turnover “does present some unintended opportunities” for teacher recruitment. It says the district should redouble efforts to fill any open positions that arise “with a more diverse pool of teachers,” further aligning a goal set in PPSD’s turnaround plan. The study also says the district’s efforts to boost retention must also include a focus on instructional effectiveness.

“The district should work to develop supportive professional climates where exceptional teachers can thrive and want to stay,” the study says. “And, the district should work to find a pathway out of the district for teachers who are not succeeding with students and who do not improve with support over time.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.