Teacher Turnover and Faith-Based Education Policy

Charter schools often differ in one very important way from regular public schools: charter school teachers do not stay for very long. One reason is that the charter school model is unsustainable: teachers are asked to do more for less, which might be fun when your in your twenties, but not so much when you’re older. This leads either to teachers leaving or to the formation (or attempt to form) of unions by the remaining teachers. Go figure.

It appears that charter schools are now extolling this high rate of turnover (boldface mine):

Mr. Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28. Across YES Prep’s 13 schools, teachers have an average of two and a half years of experience.

As tens of millions of pupils across the country begin their school year, charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable. Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools have an average of close to 14 years of experience, and public school leaders and policy makers have long made it a priority to reduce teacher turnover.

But with teachers confronting the overhaul of evaluations and tenure as well as looming changes in pension benefits, the small but rapidly growing charter school movement — with schools that are publicly financed but privately operated — is pushing to redefine the arc of a teaching career.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep. “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.”

The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools.

Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement. Advocates who argue that teaching should become more like medicine or law say that while programs like Teach for America fill a need in the short term, educational leaders should be focused on improving training and working environments so that teachers will invest in long careers.

“To become a master plumber you have to work for five years,” said Ronald Thorpe, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group that certifies accomplished teachers. “Shouldn’t we have some kind of analog to that with the people we are entrusting our children to?”

So much to fisk, so little Mad Biologist. The first thing to note is the economic rationale for this mindset–pensions and payrolls (but, really, it’s all about the children).

Anyway, the key point is the statement by Teach For America‘s Wendy Kopp. She makes a statement of belief about teacher turnover, which is belied by the experience of the New York City School system. That is, data. But why let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good cause? Though that does seem kinda creationist. Little lies for the Big Truth and all of that.

(Rich does make one mistake in an otherwise solid article though, when she notes that TFA should be used to fill temporary shortages: thanks to the recession, we don’t have shortages of teachers. In fact, TFA teachers are being used as de facto scabs in the attempt to break unions.)

At this point, I don’t see why education ‘reform’ proposals should be taken at face-value given their proponents’ penchant for playing fast and loose with the data–or ignoring it entirely. More’s the pity, since we do need to think seriously about curriculum, pedagogy, and resources, all of which would help teachers teach better. Reformers, though, haven’t demonstrated that they should be allowed to be part of that conversation. Especially with all of the ‘self improvement’ and moving on to new challenges blather–it’s not about your growth arc:

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twentysomething English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

I’m not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job….

For crying out loud, we’re not adopted puppies you can show off to your friends.

Look, we all get it. Underprivileged children occasionally say some really sad things that open your eyes and make you feel as though you’ve grown as a person, but this is my actual education we’re talking about here. Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States. I can’t afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone’s inspirational narrative.

From a policy perspective, you never want The Onion to be on target. Just saying.

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4 Responses to Teacher Turnover and Faith-Based Education Policy

  1. joemac53 says:

    Today my daughter started teaching in a new (to her) high school. She is a 10-year veteran teacher, and this move makes it almost a certainty that she is a lifer. She has a degree in her subject matter from a fancy-pants Boston private university, a Master’s in Teaching her subject, and she adores the kids. Her new students will love her within a few weeks. They are lucky to have her for a teacher.
    I was not a happy camper when she decided to teach, although I know how much fun a teacher can have, and what a great profession teaching can be. I retired just as Race to the Top was dangled in front of our eyes (with very little money). I thought 35 years was enough, but I still want to go out and rattle some cages and yell at some fools. I’m talking about the reformers: Where can I get at ’em?

  2. Robert L Bell says:

    Teach for America is a transparent union busting scam, and I am happy to see you spreading the word.

    Keep it up, and I hope you get a lot of mouse clicks!

  3. Don Atkinson says:

    You really need to quit with the broad brush condemnation of every charter school in the nation.

    Salt Lake City has four highly specialized charter schools:
    Academy for Math, Engineering and Science
    Open Classroom
    Salt Lake Center for Science Education
    Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts
    Those are four damned good schools that work in partnership with the standard high schools (two of them are housed inside city high schools) and the University of Utah. OC is an elementary school that has been around for 35 years and quite a few of the teachers have been there for decades. They are excellent schools with excellent teachers and are an integral part of the overall structure of the Salt Lake City School District.

    There may be all manner of political garbage going on in education but treating every single charter school as some kind of evil identical clone is as ignorant as the people you are rightfully condemning.

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