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School Choice & Charters

Charter School Teacher Turnover: What the Numbers Show (or Don’t)

By Arianna Prothero — July 20, 2015 1 min read

Charter schools recruit young teachers, work them hard, pay them little and replace them quickly once they burn out ... at least that’s what many charter school critics say.

It turns out there’s not a lot of data to either back or refute that claim.

National numbers show that teacher retention rates are improving in charter schools, but there remains a lot of variability within geographic regions and charter networks, according to a recent story by my colleague Stephen Sawchuk who covers teachers for Education Week.

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education found that teacher turnover rate dropped by 5.3 percent between the end of the 2012-13 and the 2008-09 school years.

But beyond that once-every-four-year federal survey, there’s no other national gauge, and it’s nigh on impossible to pin down teacher turnover numbers on a more micro level. More from my colleague, Mr. Sawchuk:

Even for states that keep records on teacher retention by school, the data are often incomplete or contested. Most gauges don't break out involuntary dismissals or other contributing factors. New York's most recent teacher-retention rates for schools date from 2012-13, and some of the state's approximately 285 charters are missing entirely. ... Major charter-management organizations either don't routinely release their rates or release them only at the network level. Actual building-level retention rates tend to be lower as a result of teachers' changing jobs or schools within a network."

Turnover vs. Churn and Burn

Finally, where there is smoke, doesn’t always mean there is fire—which is to say that high teacher turnover rates are not always proof that a school is churning and burning through instructors. That creates another wrinkle in trying to track teacher retention in charters, explains Stephen:

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."

But even if you can poke holes in the current data, that doesn’t mean that the churn and burn phenomenon in charters is a complete myth, and some school leaders acknowledge that teacher turnover could hurt the sector—imagined or not.

To read what some unionized charter school teachers have to say on the issue, as well as what some charter schools are doing to improve teacher retention, check out the full story from Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.