Charter Schools and the Selling of Short Term Teachers


Summary:  How is it that young charter teachers achieve results comparable to their more experienced traditional public school brethren, and why do so many in both camps leave teaching so prematurely?

Whether or not any charter iteration creates a silver bullet, charter schools prove their worth simply by the mirror they hold up to schools as they are. We see more clearly, the philosopher tells us, in comparison between alternatives.

Motoko Rich writing in the New York Times, “Charter Schools – Short Careers By Choice,” compares the relatively short career trajectories of charter school teachers to the generally longer ones of traditional public school teachers. The former tend not to last beyond two or three years, arguably before they can fully reach their professional stride, while traditional public school teachers last an average of fourteen years, well into what we expect to be full professional stride, though an appalling 46% bail within five years. Lurking around the edges, in the hiring of young hot shots by charter schools, is the criticism that longer term public school teachers, particularly in lower income urban schools, hit a wall and compromise on the calling that led them to teaching in the first place.

Ms. Rich apparently has hit a nerve; in short order at least two other commentators have responded.

Rich quotes Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America:  “the “strongest (of charter) schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

The claim asserts further that this transformation occurs through a summer of training and close supervision during the school year. The latter is laudable, and worth emulating more broadly in regular public schools themselves, with rookies and veterans alike.

From my experience, however, the average principal in a traditional public school would need to be liberated from other pressing duties to supervise so intensively. Just as the need for more tightly woven relationships with low income students calls for better teacher/student ratios, principals to be effective in “tightly woven” supervisory relationships need help from more administrative bodies to perform ancillary administrative work.

I suspect an important innovation of charters might lie in the restructuring of schools and the refined emphasis of how different staff players spend their time.

Though I have respect for Kopp and what she and her organization have developed, her claim of nearly immediate teacher excellence is a bit too gushy, and contrary to my experience in a good high school which has a history of attracting quality individuals as novice teachers.

New teachers with mature personal infrastructure may become good contributors in their first couple of years, but “great” is a stretch well beyond the edge. Did she really say that? Was she quoted out of context?

Rich, without direct comment, dutifully quotes the rational “other side.” “Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement.” Two years and gone, the charter and Teach for America norm, qualifies as rapid turnover. Of course, the 46% turnover within five years for traditional public school teachers frankly isn’t a banner under which we want to march, either.

What, for example, is the turnover in Finnish, or South Korean, or German schools? I suspect they would find risible Kopp’s contention, and be appalled at the parallel rate in traditional public schools.

What is it in a teacher’s life in an American school that so wrenchingly alters the new teacher candidates’ intended direction? At minimum, tough work surely, in the viscous hold (heavy water) of bureaucracy, poorly respected, modestly recompensed.

Rich dives into the world of compensation. She quotes Kay Henderson, the chancellor of the District of Columbia schools, who says a high performing teacher in the DC schools by their third year could be paid $80,000 a year, albeit from a relatively high urban pay base. The unstated question is whether similar financial incentives might lure the short term Teach for America and charter newbies to stay into their teaching maturity, or would alter the exit statistics from traditional public school teaching positions.

Hard to say. Teach for America for some is a type of social contribution, after which these quality young people evaporate into other careers better rewarded by society, which include administrative and policy positions sited on education. Good teachers, committed teachers, need to love the work, truly like kids, and have the self-awareness to know that their growth in these dimensions of service provide a significant part of their life blood. To the extent that charters and Teach for America can divine these qualities, they are likely to retain more candidates beyond minimal and, yes, novice years, regardless of recompense.

But money! This harried and defensive defender of unions exults! Maybe those nasty old unions are in the business of school reform, after all. They may poorly project professional agenda and eschew finer point debates about how to release low income student abilities, but they know teachers and schools need money, the lack of which contributes to teacher flight via perpetually capped paychecks and relief from mounting expectations.

Matthew Yglesias on his blog “Moneybox” in Slate carries the comparison between the longevity of charter school teachers and regular public school teachers further.

The latest 2013 CREDO results out of Stanford, which compares charter school progress with that of traditional public schools, suggest that charters have at least equaled or exceeded the results of their traditional public school counterparts. Referring to these latest figures, Yglesias rightly asks, “given that these charters are really held back by having such a large share of first- and second-year teachers, how is it that they’re able to produce decent educational results?”

He then answers himself. “The evidence isn’t airtight, but the natural inference to make from the turnover data is that the experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.” He goes on to offer up a couple of usual suspects – the poor validity of screening process for new teachers and the suspicion that too many traditional public teachers are of poor quality. Hence, high quality newbies, though callow, can match the teaching quality of the allegedly dead wood.

To his credit, he doesn’t overly pile on the accustomed anti-teacher, anti-union bandwagon, and seems to suspend judgment, but his question — how do young teachers in charters match their experienced counterparts – has merit.

It’s just much more complex a topic than to simply lay the answer at the feet of the current teacher corps.  Though we know that the Teach for America inductees as a group are stronger students in college than the average teacher training graduate, if we stop there and assume we have the answer we have simply identified a scapegoat, which solves no problem, though the knowledge does beg the question as to how to incentivize better the entry ramp into the teaching profession.

Yglesias’ approach is deductive, which can divorce conclusions from the real world.

The first answer to his query lies in the respective structures of the schools in which the charter and the traditional teacher labor.

A friend on the board of a non-profit was recently bemoaning the stodgy, negative atmosphere of the organization he oversees. Its mission was foundering, and it was desperately in need of fresh ways of thinking, he went on. He might well have been talking about a multitude of schools across the country, in greater or lesser degree.

The hallmark of a school bureaucracy is the top down grip on power, and the discouragement to the point of suppression of any creative thinking outside the orthodox mold. It is not a sinister environment, just one that dulls any initiative that might otherwise blossom outside of each teacher’s world inside the classroom with the door closed. It is as though thinkers need not apply. At least not and broadcast it.

Type A rookies, fresh from their university academic triumphs, will find in traditional public schools a bureaucratic modus operandi that blunts their eagerness to contribute.

Further, the isolation implicit in the often inadequate supervision of new public school teachers may be a deal breaker. At least “regular” teachers, graduates of teacher education programs of differing quality, have had preparation beyond the rudimentary summer crash introduction typical of Teach for America, but they too leave teaching in hordes only relatively less pronounced. Perhaps they leave having suffered similar disillusions.

I suspect the more successful charters are simply better and more exciting places too work, “flatter” organizations whose local energy is locally transformed into ideas and practices to which new teachers eagerly contribute, and in fact are expected to contribute.

It is this presumed characteristic of successful charters that accounts for at least some of the ability of new teachers in charters to match the results of their more veteran public school counterparts. Charters may simply stimulate the talents of these novices by giving them a seat in the power structure and incorporating their input into decisions. How might the current traditional school teacher corps fare if they were similarly blessed by more flexible management structures?

Incubated in this presumed organizational quality of successful charters is a second reason why I suspect young charter teachers match their traditional public school cousins.

Charters hire young unformed folk because they do not carry the inevitable bureaucratic virus contracted by years in traditional public schools.

Moreover, with the encouragement of the “flat” charter managerial style they zealously give extra time, energy, and messianic commitment to task that more veteran teachers must give to families and other parts of their lives. This fervor pays a variety of dividends for charter students.

For example, one axiom in the effort to stimulate the academic growth of low income kids is the importance of relationship with a teacher. Such relationship building is time intensive. Because young recruits have an abundance of time they will later not have, often enough they lend it to the cause, and in the short run provide the extra boost that is reflected in charters’ impressive documented showing. Provide traditional public schools with ten, fifteen, twenty hours more a week per teacher and then let us compare notes.

The choice of young hire is likely purposeful as much as it may be shortsighted; the technique seems to lead to an inevitable burnout from a pace of contribution that simply cannot be sustained in a normally balanced life. This reality has led charter teachers in Chicago to investigate the protections of unionization from the overwork into which they have felt pressured. I find it hard to believe that charter administrators would cynically hire novice teachers with the intent to take advantage of their eager energy, fully knowing they will reach a useful peak quickly, and then disengage. Or perhaps the unstated bargain is the teachers’ youthful energy and stage of life in exchange for the excitement of the work, the making of a difference, and the headiness of crusade.

Sara Mosle in a contribution to Slate provides a wonderfully textured completion of the circle begun in Motoko Rich’s original article. Mosle brings her practical experience as a parent and teacher to the table, and relays the changed perspective of another former Teach for America teacher through his transition from young “hard charging” 25 year old to a parent himself with new found appreciation for the experience of veteran teachers.

Ms. Mosle herself taught three years in a charter in New York City, then exited the profession, only to return some years later to charters, in the interim becoming a parent. There are threads in Mosle’s account that leap out at me as fundamental truths absent from the narrative pushed by too many reform voices, and which give context to the comparison between the results attributed to young charter teachers and their public school counterparts.

Among those threads….Though clearly the young and the childless can be excellent teachers, there is a leavening of a teacher’s viewpoint in the process of having one’s own children that lends a broader understanding both of one’s students and of the hopes and fears of their parents. Amen, I say, as a once teacher young and eager, and then as an older parent working with kids and their families as a school counselor.

To the leavening of parenthood I would add the combined adult experience of making one’s way independently in the world, and the perspective it provides to the mentoring of students preparing for their own way.

Mosle adds to her own credibility that of Ryan Hill, once upon a time one of those “hard charging” young idealists introduced in Motoko Rich’s article, but now a charter administrator. Speaking of veteran teachers in the school he administers, he acknowledges “Our people who are proven, who are good, are so irreplaceable. It was just not an option for us to lose them.” As a consequence, in both his school and in the one in which Mosle reactivated her teaching career hours have been adjusted to accommodate new parents among the staff, and benefits such as maternity leave have been initiated.

I admit to find this testimony satisfying, as well as Hill’s assertion (in Mosle’s words) that “his attitude (about the importance of veteran teachers) isn’t always shared or understood by some corporate backers who come ‘from fast-growth, non-people dependent industries.’ But in teaching, Hill argues, your people are everything.”

Do not take this as dismissal of the reform minded movement often energized from outside of schools, but as recognition of the role experience with real kids must play in finding our way to better instructional outcomes. Again, this is a call for dialogue among the players, and a pointed reminder that the scapegoating of veteran teachers shuts out critical contributions.

So give a tip of the hat to the Rich/Yglesias/Mosle troika for an unusually rich lode of insight amid the mountain of verbiage on school reform.

Ha! Including mine!

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2 Responses to Charter Schools and the Selling of Short Term Teachers

  1. Deb says:

    Food for thought… You inspire me simply (or not so simply) for sticking around public education for so many years. You are the forever Wise One! 🙂

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