Charter Schools Battle High Teacher Turnover

At some charter schools in Texas, it’s the teachers who can’t wait to clear out at the end of the school year.

At Accelerated Intermediate Academy in Houston, 79 percent of the faculty turned over before the 2008-09 school year, according to recently released state data. At Peak Preparatory in Dallas, 71 percent did not return. At Harmony Science Academy in College Station, part of Harmony’s nine-school statewide network, 69 percent of teachers split. (Officials at all three schools did not respond to requests for comment.)

In all, more than 40 of nearly 200 charter operators the state tracked — some which oversee multiple schools — had to replace more than half their teaching staffs before the last school year. Even more established and successful operators, including KIPP and YES Prep in Houston, lose nearly a third of their teachers annually. In contrast, just six of more than 1,000 non-charter school districts statewide had more than half their teachers leave, and none of the 20 largest school districts had a turnover rate higher than 16 percent. (Austin ISD had the highest.)

While the new state data provides figures for individual school districts and charter operators, it doesn't include comparative statewide averages. However, a study of 2006-07 data by the Texas Center for Educational Research put the average teacher turnover for all charters at 43 percent, compared to 16 percent for traditional public school districts that year.

The comparison isn’t perfect, in part because district-wide data doesn’t account for teachers who left one school within a district for another, but the high turnover rates of so many charter operators clearly creates problems, charter advocates acknowledge. Just as with any business experiencing high employee turnover, the churn of teachers at a school can be a sign of tumult and instability, redirecting time and money into perpetual hiring and training. 

“When you have a system that’s working, you generally have stability among people who have a common understanding of the curriculum, the processes and the structure. Any time you have to retrain, it creates a real challenge,” said Laura Taylor, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency. “But you have to go beyond just the number [of teachers who leave] and look at which teachers are leaving, what subject areas they are in, and whether they are the real leaders with the experience.” 

Factors contributing to teacher attrition at charters can be complex. And some charter operators have learned to mitigate potential problems by ramped-up recruiting and training efforts meant to ensure relatively large numbers of new hires can quickly learn the school’s teaching philosophy.

YES Prep, for instance, almost exclusively hires younger teachers who they expect to move on to other careers. They average teacher on their seven campuses averages only about 25 years old. Many are recruited by the Teach For America program, which requires only a two-year commitment to teaching.

“Many will move on to graduate school or law school,” says YES Prep spokeswoman Jill Willis. “We talk about our students getting long days and having teacher’s cell phone numbers and weekend enrichment opportunities. On the other side of that, there’s a teacher … and it’s a heavy lift.”

Still, YES Prep administrators acknowledge they are losing too many teachers each year. (Their internal figures show 22 percent rather than the 30 percent listed by the state, but Willis says either figure is too high.) YES wants more of those young teachers to become veterans and is considering a “master teacher track” that would allow teachers who don’t want to leave the classroom to make administrative-level salaries. Such teachers would likely take on additional curriculum development and training duties.

But there are some teachers who the schools are glad to lose. Charters have much more freedom to fire unsuccessful teachers, and many take advantage of it. Willis estimated that about half the teachers who leave YES Prep are sent packing. “We’re faster to dismiss teachers,” she says. “It’s not something that we want to do, but with the demographics that we’re serving, and what we’re trying to do to push them to success, we can’t afford to have four years in a row of a bad teacher.”

In general, charter schools do serve a population with higher needs, and that in part accounts for teacher burnout, says David Dunn, the executive director of the Texas Charter School Association. But the state’s charters also struggle to pay competitive salaries because of financing inequities largely out of their control. “Salaries vary tremendously from school to school, but on the whole they are a little bit lower that traditional school districts,” Dunn says. “Payroll is 80 percent or more of any school’s budget, and charters have less money from the state, in part because a lot of their facilities money has to come out of operating funds.”

According to the TCER study, the average charter school teacher made $35,556 compared with $44,897 in traditional public schools. That difference likely owes both to lower rates of pay at charters and to their practice of higher younger teachers.

Problems with teacher attrition aren’t unique to Texas. Dunn pointed to a 2007 Western Michigan University study that examined factors driving the problem. Among them was charters’ propensity to hire younger, cheaper teachers, sometimes without certification, who are more likely to split then stick around. The study put attrition rates nationally at charters between 20 and 25 percent annually, with attrition among newer teachers at about 40 percent.

“Some would argue that a certain amount of attrition is positive in that it corrects a mismatch between teacher and school,” the study reads. “[But] such extensive attrition cannot be characterized as desirable. High attrition consumes resources of schools that must regularly provide … training to new teachers; it impedes schools’ efforts to build professional learning communities and positive and stable school cultures; and it is likely to undermine the legitimacy of the schools in the eyes of parents.”

Charter schools are well aware of the issue and actively seeking solutions, Dunn says, but teacher turnover shouldn’t be viewed in isolation of other financing issues affecting charter staffing.

“A lot of teachers are willing to sacrifice on the salary end for the greater flexibility they provide in comparison to the bureaucracy” of traditional school systems, he says. “But charters have to be able to pay comparable salaries to compete in urban areas. Teachers are just like you and me in that regard.”

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