Recruitment & Retention

Charters Look to Change Perceptions on Teacher Turnover

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 02, 2015 8 min read
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After developing a strategic plan earlier this year in part to address a dip in scores at her school, Brittany Wagner-Friel faced a challenge.

The principal of the elementary campus of the pre-K-12 E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington knew that teaching talent was crucial to realizing the plan, but one of her star teachers was on the fence about returning in the fall.

The key to getting the instructor to commit to coming back, Ms. Wagner-Friel said, was promising her more opportunities to hone and share her expertise on project-based learning, one of the main teaching methods in use at E.L. Haynes.

It’s a single example, but one that hints at a rising theme of the charter school sector: making the schools places where teachers want to stay beyond a few years.

“Sometimes I think teachers need to be reinvigorated,” Ms. Wagner-Friel said. “Having them lead a project has been helpful in getting them excited about the work again.”

High rates of attrition are a common criticism of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. And despite contested data about the phenomenon, some charter leaders acknowledge teacher turnover as a liability for the movement.

“There’s this narrative about charters burning and churning people and we do not in any way, shape, or form want to be a part of that,” said Nella Garcia Urban, the vice president of talent for the Houston-based YES Prep school network. “We know that we see the greatest growth in our kids once our teachers have been with us about three years.”

Matters of Interpretation

Three decades after the first charter opened, the image of the harried 20-something teacher burning out after 60-hour weeks in her charter school has become a stock type in education debates. But whether it’s representative of the charter sector writ large is difficult to pin down.

National data, for example, actually show a narrowing of the gap in teacher-retention rates between regular public schools and their charter brethren between 2008-09 and 2012-13, but offer few clues as to why. Analyses of specific regions or networks, on the other hand, show drastically different rates among schools and regions.

See Also

Teacher-Retention Data for Charters Still Murky

The second challenge is interpretive: Where teacher-attrition rates seem unreasonably high, are all the factors involved negative?

Take the Los Angeles school district, where a 2011 study comparing charter and traditional school teachers between 2002-03 and 2008-09 found that charter teachers at the high school level were three times more likely to leave than their peers.

But forthcoming studies seem to point to a mix of factors, including the start-up-like culture of the city’s charters and the type of teachers who are attracted to them, said Bruce C. Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the co-authors of the Los Angeles research.

“We see a lot of teachers who are super-bright, super-committed to the kids, but don’t necessarily see teaching as a long-term career,” Mr. Fuller said. “The second force is that the working conditions are invigorating, but also lead to high levels of burnout.”

All the same, critics contend that rather than addressing the problem, too many charters have instead worked high rates of teacher turnover into their models, to the detriment of students.

“I think it’s actually a feature of charter schools rather than a bug in them,” said Brian Harris, the president of the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, a Chicago-based union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers that now represents some 30 charter schools. “At its most basic, we work longer days and a longer year and we get paid less. You’re not going to be able to hold teachers when there are schools all over the city that pay more for less hours.”

Criticism falls especially heavily on the mission-driven “no excuses” charter-management organizations, home to some of the highest-scoring charters nationally, such as the New York City-based Success Academies and the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which has schools in 20 states. Such schools typically couple extended learning hours for students with a strong emphasis on behavioral norms.

As even those networks acknowledge, the work hours for teachers can be long and intense, although the groups say that much of that time is devoted to preparation and support, not just instruction.

Pro and Con

Complicating matters is the likelihood that some charters’ higher turnover rates are at least partly attributable to the sector’s rapid growth, especially within popular networks. Success Academies has added 18 schools since 2013, and it has relied heavily on current staff to move to the new buildings.

In addition, some networks have relied on alternative-certification programs to meet hiring needs, including some, like Teach For America, that require only two years of teaching. In 2014-15, a third of the 10,400 Teach For America corps members worked in charter schools.

Still, even some charter supporters agree that uncomfortable truths lurk behind the rhetoric about turnover.

Conor Williams, a former teacher at the Crown Heights campus of the Achievement First network, in Brooklyn, recalled working a nine-hour school day on top of grading and other duties. Like other such networks, Achievement First offered many opportunities to move quickly into new roles. But while the idea of advancing to a curriculum job was appealing, its potentially even longer hours weren’t.

“I was looking for some continued advancement, but also some professional sanity,” said Mr. Williams, now a senior researcher at the Washington-based New America, a think tank.

Within the diffuse charter community itself, the debate about whether—and how—to prioritize teacher-retention remains contested.

High teacher turnover isn’t intrinsically bad for students or teachers, contends Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “In my opinion, so long as teachers are producing results and impacting students in a positive way, and the school is able to attract new talent, it’s not that big of a deal,” Ms. Rees said.

At E.L. Haynes, where retention rates at the elementary campus have hovered around 75 percent to 80 percent annually, Ms. Wagner-Friel sees the debate from two perspectives. She agrees that each teacher lost translates into the heavy workload of finding a new hire and inculcating him or her into the school’s culture.

On the other hand, some teachers’ decisions to leave probably benefited students overall.

“Of course I want you to stay if you want to be here,” she said of her teachers. “But if you don’t, your kids are picking up on that. Your colleagues are picking up on that. Families are picking up on it. And it’s impacting your work every single day.”

So why, in fits and starts, are some charters schools and networks thinking twice about teacher retention?

Sometimes, it’s context. In Memphis, Tenn., where the number of charter schools has ballooned since 2008, the competition for talent has made retention of skilled teachers a top priority for some.

“The fight for talent is pretty real,” said Ashley Shores, the principal of the Soulsville Charter School, a middle and secondary charter serving about 340 students. “We’re all trying to recruit from a small crop of really high-performing teachers.”

Her school has moved to better balance teachers’ workloads by paring back teachers’ formal hours so they have enough time to schedule doctor’s appointments and pick up the dry cleaning. Teachers are now required to stay past 3:30 only two days a week, and they teach Saturday classes quarterly, rather than the 18 per year required a few years back.

Holding Onto Talent

The KIPP network has made headlines for its retention efforts, too: Several of its regions have established day-care programs for teachers with young children.

The group also has high hopes for a new initiative that provides teachers with model lessons in core subjects. The idea is that such exemplars will prevent the newest teachers from being overwhelmed in the crucial first few years.

“I think it’s a myth that people don’t want to stay five years or 10 years. It’s that we’re losing teachers in the first and second years, because they have to reinvent the wheel,” said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for KIPP. The organization aspires to reach an 80 percent retention rate nationally, he added.

The YES Prep network, in Houston, made retention a priority after surveys highlighted it as a key concern of teachers. Internal data also showed that teachers stayed only an average of a little over two years, Ms. Urban said.

So this coming school year, YES Prep will implement a “Commit to Five” initiative designed to make five years the baseline tenure among its staff. Among other incentives, more experienced teachers will receive increased autonomy over their work hours. And a new pay structure will reward teachers in their third and fourth years with salaries comparable to those of 10-year veterans in a traditional school, Ms. Urban said.

Given their newness, many of those programs have yet to prove that they pay dividends in keeping teachers happier and staying in classrooms longer.

But their basic underpinnings—better working conditions, higher pay, and more support—make common sense, as does simply getting to know what each teacher needs and wants, said Ms. Wagner-Friel, the D.C. charter school principal.

“It is such a personal thing,” she said. “Every teacher is different, and it takes knowing them as an individual: What do you need to know, or see, or get, to stay here next year?”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Charters Look Anew at Teacher Retention


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