Charters Seen as Lab for Report’s Ideas on Teachers

By Debra Viadero — February 23, 2009 7 min read
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Devoting an entire section to the issue of teacher quality, the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk laid out seven recommendations for staffing practices aimed at ensuring that “superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged, and poor ones either improved or terminated.”

Charter schools—unfettered by some of the bureaucratic constraints of traditional public schools—are theoretically in a good position to use just the sorts of tactics the report’s authors thought were needed for hiring and maintaining a high-quality teaching staff. Charter administrators are often freer to fire subpar teachers, for instance, or offer higher pay to job candidates with greater subject-matter expertise.

Yet whether that freedom has translated to a better-quality teaching force for charter schools remains an open, and highly debatable, research question.

Sixteen years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, only a few studies have examined the quality of the teachers in the publicly financed but independently operated schools.

A Comparative Study of Teacher Preparation and Qualifications

In 2007, Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor, compared the percentages of teachers who met typical qualifications for the job in seven educational systems. In all, he found, the reality fell short of official standards.


SOURCE: Consortium for Policy Research in Education

Several of those studies have shown that charter schools tend to employ fewer certified teachers than their district-run counterparts. But researchers have also found that charter school educators are more likely to be graduates of selective colleges and universities than are teachers in traditional public schools.

“The question is: What does better quality mean?” said Caroline M. Hoxby, a Stanford University economist who studies charter schools. “If it means having better teaching credentials, that’s not what charter schools are doing. But if you asked charters, they would say, ‘Yes, we want to hire that undergraduate from Princeton University.’”

What Matters Most?

Experts disagree on which teacher characteristics are important to good teaching.

Is experience more valuable than high scores on teacher-licensing tests? Should all teachers hold a traditional teaching license?

In recent years, the emerging breed of “value added” studies has shed some light on what makes a good teacher. The method ties teacher qualifications to actual results in the classroom by analyzing the year-to-year gains that students make on standardized tests.

What that research has shown so far is that some seemingly important teacher qualifications, such as having a master’s degree, can actually have little, or even a slightly negative, impact on student achievement.

Years of experience matters, the value-added research has also shown, but only up to a point: After three or four years on the job, teachers’ performance does not tend to improve much more. Studies are mixed overall on whether teachers with traditional licenses outperform peers who take a more unorthodox path into the classroom.

When Ms. Hoxby surveyed charter schools and looked at federal data on teachers for a 2001 study, she discovered that nearly all traditional public school teachers across the country were certified, compared with 87 percent of the teachers in charter schools. She also found that 44 percent of regular public school teachers held master’s degrees, versus 41 percent of charter school teachers.

But the charter school teachers were more likely than those in regular public schools to have undergraduate degrees from high-ranking colleges and to have majored in the arts and sciences.

About 20 percent of regular public school teachers had attended institutions ranked most competitive by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

About This Series

This is the third installment in a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published Sept. 24, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning. In the fourth and final installment, Education Week will examine the education system of a high-performing nation as well as the systems in several other countries.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

The comparative figure in the charter school sector was 36 percent—the same as for private schools.

Ms. Hoxby also found that while charter schools tended for the most part to hire many young, inexperienced teachers, they also had a fair number of veterans who divided their time between teaching and running the schools.

“I think that’s become a kind of general hiring practice, because it just seems to work well for them,” said Ms. Hoxby.

She also determined that charter school teachers provided an average of 13 more instructional hours than their contracts call for, compared with the nine extra hours a week that regular public school teachers put in.

According to experts, that profile of a young, energetic, well-educated teacher who is passionate about his or her work is often seen at high-performing charter schools, including successful models such as the well-known Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, whose network now has 66 schools across the country.

Youthful Enthusiasm

Steven F. Wilson, a senior fellow at Education Sector, a Washington think tank, studied a set of Boston-area charter schools that outperformed the rest of that city’s public school system.

He found that nearly three-quarters of the teachers in what he calls those “no excuses” charter schools had graduated from top-tier universities.

The problem is: Can that kind of labor pool be sustained as young teachers burn out and charter networks attempt to grow and “scale up” their models?

“The total number of college graduates from Barron’s ‘highly competitive’ or ‘most competitive’ institutions in the United States is approximately 141,956 annually,” Mr. Wilson writes in a working paper circulated last year. “If fully 10 percent entered into teaching for a two-year period before moving on to other careers, it would provide 27,655 such educators annually.”

That’s only 6 percent of the 438,914 teachers at work in the 66 urban districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools, by Mr. Wilson’s calculations.

“It’s hard to predict ex ante who’s going to be a good teacher,” said Michael J. Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “I think the key, though, for charter schools is to have the capacity to act on the differentiated effectiveness of teachers,” he said, “and there’s some evidence that they’re doing that.”

In a 2006 study comparing staffing practices at charter schools, private schools, and traditional public schools in the Kansas City, Mo., area, Mr. Podgursky found that the charters had the highest teacher-dismissal rates, possibly because the charters were younger and less stable than the other schools in the sample.

The flexibility that charter schools have to hire and fire as they please, though, depends on the state and local laws that govern them.

A 2004 study by the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing revealed that teaching staffs in charter schools tended to mirror those in mainstream public schools in districts where charter school teachers were covered by the same collective bargaining agreements or in areas where school districts were the only entities allowed to authorize new charters.

The same pattern held, the researchers found, in states that required all charter school teachers to be certified.

Another vital concern for traditional schools is whether charters, with their greater hiring flexibility or promises of better working conditions, are siphoning off their best teachers.

To find out, Celeste K. Carruthers, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, analyzed years of statewide data on North Carolina teachers moving from mainstream elementary schools to either charter or other traditional public schools. Her not-yet-published study is among the first to apply value-added methods to compare teachers in both kinds of schools.

No Cream-Skimming Seen

Statewide, she found, the teachers who moved to charter schools typically did so with a “less impressive” history of class performance on math exams than was the case for the teachers who transferred to noncharter schools.

But within their former schools, the teachers who moved to charter schools tended to be among the better performers on staff, which suggests that many of them came from schools with low overall student achievement.

“The most sweeping conclusion that I can make is that these teachers are comparable to other teachers who are willing to change schools,” Ms. Carruthers said in an interview. “We’re not finding a migration of overwhelmingly high-quality teachers jumping ship and going to charter schools.”

As Mr. Podgursky noted, though, any staffing advantages that charter schools may possess have yet to translate into dramatic improvements in what is for schools the bottom line: student achievement.

“At this point, there is not a lot of strong evidence that charter schools are globally outperforming traditional public schools,” he said. “And partly it’s because they’re new. In education, anything you do that works is going to take a while.”

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as Charters Seen as Lab for Report’s Ideas on Teachers


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