Should the High Teacher Turnover Rate in Charter Schools Be a Cause for Concern?

SchoolTeacherSubmitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

In a recent New York Times article titled At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice, Mitoko Rich wrote of how charter schools seem to be developing something of a “youth cult” in their teaching ranks. She reported that in the charter network “teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.”

Teachers in the thirteen YES Prep Schools, which are located throughout Greater Houston, have a reported average of two and a half years of experience. The teachers who work for Achievement First—which has 25 schools in Connecticut, Brooklyn, and Providence, R.I.— “spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom.” And the individuals who teach in the KIPP schools and the Success Academy Charter Schools stay in the classroom for an average of four years. This youth culture—or culture in which most classroom practitioners have little teaching experience— differs from that of our country’s traditional public schools where teachers average nearly fourteen years of experience…and where public school leaders have made it “a priority to reduce teacher turnover.”

In the NYT article, Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep, was quoted as saying, “We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’  There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.” (Note: New teachers at the YES Prep schools receive just two and a half weeks of training over the summer before arriving in the classroom.)

Rich says it was Teach for America (TFA) that was mostly responsible for introducing the idea of a “foreshortened teaching career.” TFA is an organization that recruits “high-achieving” college graduates and places them in some of our neediest schools. In a piece for Policymic, Benjamin Cosman wrote about TFA recruits. He said that after just five weeks of training, “Teach for America participants lead a classroom for two years, slap it on their resume, and leave the school with a bevy of opportunities.”

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, contends that “strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers. The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.” (Question for Wendy Kopp: Are you sending your teaching recruits into the “strongest” schools?)

Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and a man who once viewed Teach for America as a positive program, has a difference of opinion regarding teacher turnover. He has been disappointed that TFA doesn’t instill a commitment to teaching in its program participants. In fact, Naison no longer allows TFA to recruit his college students.

Naison said the following about Kopp’s organization:

Until Teach For America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes.  The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.

He added:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach For America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

After reading Rich’s article about the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools, Catherine M. Ionata responded in a letter to the editor. She wrote:

The charter school representatives in your article defend the rapid turnover of teachers. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, even says that teachers can become great in one or two years! Would we expand this idea to other professions? Do we think the best lawyers are those fresh out of law school? Should we choose a rookie physician for complex surgery, because this surgeon is more “enthusiastic” than veteran surgeons?

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

Education expert Diane Ravitch also weighed in on the subject after reading Rich’s article:

Can you imagine that a “teacher” who graduated college in June is already “a great teacher” by September?

Why do we expect entrants to every other profession to spend years honing their craft but a brand-new teacher, with no experience, can be considered “great” in only one or two years, then leave to do something else?

This is a recipe to destroy the teaching profession.

How can anyone say they are education “reformers” if their goal is to destroy the profession?

What other nation is doing this?

This is not innovative. In fact, it returns us to the early nineteenth century, when the general belief was that “anyone can teach, no training needed.” Teaching then was a job for itinerants, widow ladies, young girls without a high school degree, and anyone who couldn’t do anything else. It took over a century to create a teaching profession, with qualifications and credentials needed before one could be certified to stand in front of a classroom of young children. We are rapidly going backwards.

Henry Seton, a humanities teacher at Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts, was another educator who responded to Rich’s article. He wrote:

The high teacher turnover at charter schools leaves these institutions fragile and ill equipped to support their most vulnerable students. It takes far more than a year or two in the classroom to develop that elusive set of skills needed to serve our nation’s neediest cohorts of students — young men of color, English language learners and so on. And I have seen some of the most well-regarded charters here in Massachusetts left reeling and in danger of closing after extensive teacher departures.

Benjamin Cosman (Policymic) wrote that young teachers in charter schools “are supposed to save education in the United States.” He thinks, however, that there is a “very real danger in valuing inexperience in the teaching field…” He believes this “supposed remedy” may possibly be hastening the “demise of public education.”

In his article titled It’s Harder for Charter Schools to Keep Teachers, Francisco Vara-Orta wrote about information provided in data collected by the Texas Education Agency. The data, taken from 47 local school districts from 2006 to 2011, showed that the “average teacher turnover rate for charter school districts was 46 percent, compared with 13 percent for traditional school districts.” Vara-Orta wrote that analysis of the data showed that teachers leave charter schools in Bexar County nearly three times more often than teachers in traditional public schools, “which generally pay more and perform better academically.” He continued, “Of the 10 districts rated academically unacceptable by the state in Bexar County last year, all were charters, with turnover ranging from 38 percent to 65 percent…”

Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that the teacher turnover rate in charter schools was nearly twice as high as that of traditional public schools. In addition, the researchers found that teachers in charter schools were also more likely to leave the profession.

Excerpt from the Vanderbilt report titled Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools:

Our analysis confirms that much of the explanation of this “turnover gap” lies in the differences in the types of teachers that charter schools and traditional public schools hire. The data lend minimal support to the claim that turnover is higher in charter schools because they are leveraging their flexibility in personnel policies to get rid of underperforming teachers. Rather, we found most of the turnover in charter schools is voluntary and dysfunctional as compared to that of traditional public schools.

A second reason is that attrition is highest among teachers that are new to the profession. Past research found teachers make important gains in effectiveness in their first three years and smaller gains over the next few years (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, and Hamilton, 2003; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2005). Given that almost 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003), many teachers are leaving the classroom before they have developed into optimally effective practitioners. Moreover, exiting new teachers are often replaced by similarly inexperienced teachers and consequently students in schools with high turnover may rarely be exposed to experienced teachers.

Third, turnover affects many of the organizational conditions important to effective schooling, such as instructional cohesion and staff trust. Effective schools hold shared beliefs in similar instructional goals and practices (Fuller & Izu, 1986; Bryk & Driscoll, 1988). Schools with high turnover are challenged to develop a shared commitment towards the same goals, pedagogy, and curriculum. The constant churning of teaching staff makes it difficult to collaborate, develop standard norms of practice, and maintain progress towards common goals. This can lead to fragmented instructional programs and professional development plans that must be adapted each year to meet the needs of a teaching staff in constant flux (Guin, 2004). High turnover also makes it difficult for teachers to build relational trust, which is critical towards productive collaboration in schools (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Guin, 2004).

Critics of charter schools argue that students and schools need stability. “When you stay in a school or community, you build relationships,” said Andrea Giunta, a senior policy analyst for teacher recruitment, retention and diversity at the National Education Association.

As might be expected, studies have shown that teacher turnover often “diminishes student achievement” and has a negative impact on “the overall school environment because it creates instability and a loss of institutional knowledge.”

Matthew Ronfeldt, an assistant professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan—along with colleagues Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff—conducted a study on teacher turnover. Their report was titled How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement.  Loeb, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said that the problem of teacher turnover had been well-documented. She noted, “One in three teachers leaves the profession within five years.” In their study, the three researchers sought to find out if students “do worse in the year after there is high turnover.” They discovered that high teacher turnover hurt student achievement in English and math—and that the negative impact was as “significant as the effect of free lunch eligibility (a standard measure of poverty) on test scores.”  They also found the negative impact to be strongest “among schools with more low-performing and black students. “

In a Texas Tribune article dated January 27, 2010, Brian Temple wrote that at some charter schools in the state “it’s the teachers who can’t wait to clear out at the end of the school year.”

Temple reported that according to data that had been released at the time, 79 percent of the faculty of Accelerated Intermediate Academy in Houston turned over before the 2008-09 school year. At Peak Preparatory in Dallas, 71 percent of teachers did not return…and at Harmony Science Academy in College Station, “69 percent of teachers split.”

Temple continued:

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.

The financial cost of teacher turnover is high. According to a study conducted by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, teacher attrition costs approximately $7.3 billion per year. Since teacher attrition is so costly and has been shown to have a negative effect on student performance, Benjamin Cosman wonders why TFA and charter organizations like the Yes Prep schools encourage teachers to have a “get out while you can” mentality.

Cosman argued:

We should be cultivating teachers who are in it for the long haul, who build steady careers based on longevity, who become the wizened old stalwarts who’ve been around the block a few times. Yes, there are problems with tenure and bad teachers sticking around too long, and those issues need to be addressed. But the exact opposite — getting teachers in and out as fast as we can — is certainly not the solution.

Excerpt from Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States, an issue brief released by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) in August 2005:

There is a growing consensus among researchers and educators that the single most important factor in determining student performance is the quality of his or her teachers. Therefore, if the national goal of providing an equitable education to children across the nation is to be met, it is critical that efforts be concentrated on developing and retaining high-quality teachers in every community and at every grade level…

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 1999–2000 “Public School Teacher Survey,” 47 percent of public school teachers worked with a mentor teacher in the same subject area.12 Sixty-six percent of teachers who were formally mentored by another teacher reported that it “improved their classroom teaching a lot.”13

Mentors are an important factor in providing support for new teachers as they enter the real world of the classroom, but mentoring alone is not enough. Comprehensive induction proves most effective at keeping good teachers in the classroom. Studies demonstrate that new teacher turnover rates can be cut in half through comprehensive induction—a combination of high-quality mentoring, professional development and support, scheduled interaction with other teachers in the school and in the larger community, and formal assessments for new teachers during at least their first two years of teaching.14

I can speak from experience. Mentor teachers can prove invaluable in helping young and inexperienced teachers by providing them with advice, insight, educational ideas and materials that have proved successful in the classroom, and by being a sounding board for them when they feel a need to express their frustrations, insecurities, and fears. Experienced teachers helped me when I was a teaching “ingénue.” Later, when I was a seasoned professional, I helped guide and advise young teachers. I shared books and teaching materials with them. I also listened to their new ideas. Other experienced educators at my school and I found that mentoring new teachers helped us to bond with them and to become a close-knit educational community.

Older teachers provide wisdom. Young teachers bring in a “breath of fresh air.” I think the healthiest school communities have teachers with different perspectives and levels of classroom experience—new teachers, teachers in mid career, and the old sages who have been around the block more than a few times.

One has to wonder how difficult it must be for young and inexperienced teachers to find mentors in their schools if most of the classroom practitioners have little more experience than they. One has to wonder how schools where teachers stay for just two or three years can develop their own culture and institutional memory—as well as a sense of stability and community. One has to wonder how children feel when their teachers come and go so frequently and rarely show evidence of a commitment to their schools and the student population.

It saddens me to think that there are “school reformers” in our country who encourage “foreshortened careers” in education…who think that youth trumps experience…who don’t instill a commitment to education in the young people they recruit for their teaching programs.


At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (New York Times)

The High Turnover at Charter Schools (New York Times)

Charter schools are developing teachers with short tenure (Examiner)

Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools (CRPE–Center on Reinventing Public Education)

High teacher turnover in charters: Does student achievement suffer? (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A Revolving Door (Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff)

Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools (Vanderbilt University)

It’s harder for charter schools to keep teachers (My San Antonio)

Teacher Attrition in Charter Schools 2007 (NEPC–National Education Policy Center)

Professor: Why Teach For America can’t recruit in my classroom (Washington Post)

Teacher Turnover Negatively Impacts Student Achievement in Math and English (The Journal)

Teacher turnover harms student learning (University of Michigan)

Teacher turnover affects all students’ achievement, study indicates (Stanford University)

Churn, Churn, Churn, Is Not Good for Kids or the Teaching Profession (Diane Ravitch)

High turnover reported among charter school teachers: With so many charter school teachers moving on each year, concerns arise about retaining quality educators and how stability affects student performance. (Los Angeles Times)

LA students more true to their charter schools than teachers, studies say (UC Berkeley)

Charter Schools Battle High Teacher Turnover (Texas Tribune)

Teach For America: Let’s Stop Encouraging Teachers to Leave After Two Years, Maybe? (Policymic)

Guest Post: Teacher turnover – who stays and who leaves (Stanford University)

High Teacher Turnover Rates are a Big Problem for America’s Public Schools (Forbes)

Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States (NCTAF-National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future)

NCTAF Study: Teacher Attrition Costs U.S. Over $7 Billion Annually (American Association of Colleges for Teacher education)

360 thoughts on “Should the High Teacher Turnover Rate in Charter Schools Be a Cause for Concern?”

  1. Elaine, I just read the new link. Again, I get the fact that he HATES testing. The derision he talks about for “educationists” is something that we disagree on. I too have derision for the industry. And, to date, the only folks who have really been affected by reform are the front line people. So, I understand the resentment teachers feel. I believe the problems start w/ the schools of education and then boards of educations. Teaching is not rocket science. There were a few education classes I took that were helpful back in the late 90’s. But hell, I had coached for 30 years. Coaching is teaching. The schools of education and then the boards of educations are burdensome and bureaucratic. Here’s a couple examples of the idiocy. When I returned to school I didn’t need any history credits to be certified as a secondary school[6-12 in Wi.] history teacher. I initially majored in history back in the 70’s. However, I wanted to take more history courses and took 12 extra credits in courses that interested me. I already had enough sociology credits to be certified as a sociology teacher. However, although certified, the last time I checked no high schools taught sociology. My advisor said, “You should take 9 psychology credits and 6 economic credits. then you could be certified in those subjects.” Well, I may have been certified if I just took those few credits but I do not believe I was knowledgeable enough to teach those subjects. And, after seeing some psych and econ teachers in action, I saw they weren’t either..although they had the papers to say they were.

    If you are to teach a subject you should have a major in that subject. Screw those numerous education courses. Take 6-9 education credits and more core subjects. Hell, Elaine, Mr. Turley could not be certified to teach an 8th grade civics class. WAIT.. they don’t teach civics anymore! Another educationists great idea.

  2. Elaine, I did read the one about testing, which as I’ve said, we have some agreement. I tried the 2 HuffPo links but they didn’t work.

  3. Why charter schools need better oversight
    By Valerie Strauss
    Published: September 5, 2013

    Charter schools were designed to allow founders the freedom to design and run schools as they wish outside the traditional school system bureaucracy. Here’s a case for why some of that freedom needs to be reined in. This was written by Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and the owner of a marketing and communications consultancy that serves numerous organizations including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He writes extensively about public education policy at The Education Opportunity Network, where this appeared.

    By Jeff Bryant

    There are undoubtedly wonderful charter schools in existence, and Americans generally have a favorable opinion of charters, but hardly a week goes by without news of a scandal or a study tarnishing their image.

    With schools reopening everywhere across the country, the past week or so was no exception in exposing new problems with an idea that was once thought of as a collaborative endeavor between teacher unions and school administrators aimed at serving struggling students, but has now become a heavily funded, well-marketed movement designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools.

    Leading off the charter scandal parade was Pennsylvania where an auditor general found that the state’s largest charter school pocketed $1.2 million “in improper lease-reimbursement payments.” The scheme the school was running has become all too familiar to anyone following the nefariousness of some charter school operators.

    First, you take a building, “previously owned by one of the charter school’s founders,” according to this Philadelphia Inquirer story, and use municipal bonds to sell it – in this case, for $50.7 million – at very favorable terms to a “related nonprofit organization ‘established for the sole purpose of supporting’ the charter school.” Then “the same individual who was once the charter’s landlord” creates a for-profit management company to run the school. And voila, what was once a public endeavor focused on educating children for the sole purpose of raising the well being of the community becomes a financial bonanza for a few well-placed individuals – one of whom, in this case, just happens to be “a Republican fund-raiser” who served on the governor’s “transition team.”

    This Pennsylvania charter was no lone outlaw, as the state auditor noted. “His office had found similar problems at six other charter schools,” the Inquirer story said.

    The Aspira Trifecta Scandal

    The litany of charter school scandals doesn’t stop there. Philadelphia, a city that is closing neighborhood schools and leaving school children bereft of art and music teachers due to a miserly state budget, is throwing millions – a projected $729 million – at charter schools. A recent report from Philadelphia City Paper revealed that not all of that money spent on charters goes to educating kids.

    Once again, a “non-profit,” Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, set up to serve the interests of charter schools is playing a shell game with taxpayer money so a few folks get rich. Similar to other charter schemes, “millions of dollars have moved between the network of charter schools, their parent nonprofit, and two property-management entities.”

    Four charter schools in the Aspira chain loaned $3.3 million to Aspira “in addition to $1.5 million in lease payments to Aspira and Aspira-controlled property-management entities ACE and ACE/Dougherty, and $6.3 million in administrative fees paid to Aspira in 2012.” What seems pretty clear is that Aspira has used funds from it charters to acquire real estate: The network’s combined real-estate holdings increased from $13.34 million in 2011 to $23.15 million in 2012. But “in the event of a default on that loan,” according to the article, those real estate assets are not “at risk.” Convenient, no?

    Where is the school district in this affair? “We cannot conduct even limited financial audits of the parent organization,” according to a district spokesperson quoted in the report. And where is the state? Noted reporter Daniel Denvir in the Philadelphia CityPaper: “The state Auditor General, which has seen its staff reduced by 24 percent in recent years, doesn’t have the capacity to audit all the new charter schools that have opened in the past five years. Only three Philadelphia charter schools have been audited since 2008. Aspira’s five charters are not among them.”

  4. Well Elaine….

    If not for profit…what would we do… The defense industry has to revamp efforts elsewhere…

  5. AY,

    It’s okay if people/businesses who run charter schools reap big profits for themselves. What we need is a business model for our schools, doncha know?


    Reports on charter schools expose new problems
    By Valerie Strauss

    Two new reports about public charter schools expose serious issues about the way they are run and their effectiveness.

    The first was a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Imagine Schools Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit charter school network, which is based in Arlington, Virginia and which operates more than 71 schools in more than a dozen states — including Maryland — and the District of Columbia.

    The story detailed complicated real estate deals through which the six Imagine schools operating in St. Louis with public dollars “are generating millions of dollars” for Imagine and a Kansas City-based real estate investment company.

    Essentially, Imagine sells its buildings to a company that leases them back to Imagine, which pays extremely high rent with public dollars. The paper reported that Imagine’s 2010 annual report shows that revenue grew to $265 million that year from $95 million in 2006…

    The disclosures highlight the inherent problems in allowing for-profit companies operate public schools with public funds. Businesses have one bottom line: making money, and that should never be the bottom line for the way a civic enterprise should be operated.

  6. Nick,
    thank you…. Glad you could drop by…. I think education should be made available to all folks…. Don’t you? Regardless of income levels…. My main beef with charter and voucher schools is one, they do not have to make education availble to the educationally challenged, which taking the cream of the crop of student… and two, the amount of profit they make without having to disclose it…come on… It’s tax payer dollars… Shouldn’t they have to account for it?

    Don’t digress about Hillary… That is one of your staunchest supporters person…

  7. Standardized Testing
    Separating Wheat Children from Chaff Children
    – Excerpted from the foreword to Susan Ohanian’s book What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002)
    By Alfie Kohn

    It’s one thing to justify this heartless enterprise in the name of capital-letter abstractions, like Excellence or Higher Expectations. That leaves one with a bad taste. But when the process of flunking vast numbers of children, or forcing them to drop out, or turning whole schools into giant test-prep factories is rationalized as being in the best interest of poor and minority students – the ones who actually suffer most from high-stakes testing — then one staggers backward at the sickening paradox, the sheer Orwellian audacity of the Standardistos.

    Often, of course, they can succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, “So what?” (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, “Uh oh” (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning).

    1. The “business model” of metrics works for business……sometimes. The inherent stupidity of this “educational reform” movement is the belief that the “business model” works on everything. Thank you Rand and Von Mises for introducing insanity into the political equation.

  8. Nick,

    We’re living in educational dark ages at the current time–thanks to the school reformers. I don’t suppose you read any of the Alfie Kohn articles that I posted.

  9. AY, That’s correct. You “fully support choice” as long as you have the means to pay for it. I’ll call your educational philosophy, “Let them eat cake.” What continues to astound the majority of clear thinking people is you fail to see the most fundamental hypocrisy in that. What the education industry are hoping for is prez Hillary, thinking she’ll go back to the dark ages. Well here’s what will happen. She will take the education industry money. She’ll give them a wink and nod during the campaign. The back channel line will be, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk reform and choice during the campaign but I’ll take care of you when I get elected.” Then, if she gets elected, she’ll f@ck them and not even give them a kiss. The old school is history. But, like Japanese soldiers stranded on Pacific islands back in the 50’s, the old schoolers are still fighting a lost war. It would be sad if not so self centered.

  10. “Ask what is it in itself?”

    Possibly the best advice ever given by that wise old Roman or anyone else.

    This has been an excellent thread.

  11. Mike S.,

    “It’s all done in a manner to make one believe it is about children, when in fact it is both anti-child and anti-teacher. Then again we have some ex-teachers who comment here, who are themselves anti-teacher, but such was their tutorial commitment that they no longer teach. Telling.”

    Yes, it is very telling.

  12. Mike S,

    That’s wonderful…. I fully support choice…. If that’s what they want for the children…. That’s what they should do…. Education is education…. It teaches you how to think outside the box….

  13. Elaine,

    She’s a smart child…. And good looking on top of that….she will be able to do whatever she sets her mind too…..

  14. Mike,

    It’s sad that members of the MSM, Obama, Arne Duncan, and “so-called” liberals”have embraced this type of phony school reform.

  15. Alfie Kohn: We Have to Take Back Our Schools
    By Anthony Cody
    July 27, 2011

    Alfie Kohn has been at the forefront of the resistance to test-based reforms for more than a decade. As we approach the Save Our Schools March this Saturday, I asked him to share some thoughts about the challenges we face.

    When many of us point out the narrowing of the curriculum that has been the result of high stakes testing, we are told that the next generation of tests, which the Department of Education has invested $350 million to develop, will be far better at measuring complex thinking. What do you think of this?

    First, history alone should make us skeptical about the claim that DOE is going to reverse course; as far as I know, there’s zero precedent for meaningful assessments sponsored — or even encouraged — by federal officials.

    Second, the cast of characters currently in Washington makes that claim even less credible. Arne Duncan knows nothing about the nuances of assessment and he’s surrounded by Gates Foundation people and others who are at the heart of the corporate “reform” movement that has actively supported the ultra-high-stakes use of lousy tests.

    Third, any test that’s standardized — one-size-fits-all, created and imposed by distant authorities — is inauthentic and is likely to measure what matters least. If these people were serious about assessing children’s thinking, they would be supporting teachers in gathering information over time about the depth of understanding that’s reflected in their projects and activities. Do the folks at DOE even realize that you don’t need to test in order to assess?

    Fourth, there’s every indication that whatever assessments are created will continue to be the basis for rating and ranking, for bribes and threats. A high-stakes approach, in which you use your power to compel people below you to move in whatever direction you want is at the heart of the Bush-Obama-Gates sensibility (see NCLB, Race to the Top, etc.). And that will undermine any assessment they come up with. We saw that in Kentucky and Maryland a dozen years ago: “Accountability” systems destroyed performance-based assessments. It’s sort of like the economic principle about currency known as Gresham’s Law: Bad assessments will drive out good assessments in a high-stakes environment.


    Much of your work has focused on student motivation. How do you see high stakes testing affecting students’ motivation to learn?

    There are two things going on here. First, literally scores of studies have shown that extrinsic inducements tend to undermine intrinsic motivation. The more you reward people for doing something (or threaten them for not doing it), the less interest they tend to have in whatever they were made to do. Dangle money or higher ratings in front of students — or teachers — for producing better results, and you may get better results temporarily, particularly if the measure is superficial. But their interest in doing it will likely decline, which means this controlling approach isn’t just ineffective — it’s counterproductive.

    Second, the problem isn’t just with the (manipulative) method; it’s with the goal. The high stakes here aren’t designed to improve learning, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. They’re designed to improve test scores. Those are two completely different things, and they typically pull in opposite directions. Pressure people to raise scores, and the classroom will be turned into a test-prep center. Such an environment will likely make anyone’s passion for learning (or teaching) evaporate.

  16. AY,

    My daughter attended public schools from K through 12th grade. Then she went off to Saint Anselm–a small Catholic liberal arts college that her paternal grandfather had graduated from. She LOVED it there. The school has a lovely campus and wonderful atmosphere.

    1. AY,

      My grandchildren attend Hebrew Day schools, though my children didn’t. These are schools though that don’t get any public dollars and their attendance is about religious commitment rather than dislike of public schooling.

  17. Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow
    Using Accountability to “Reform” Public Schools to Death
    By Alfie Kohn
    April 2004

    I just about fell off my desk chair the other day when I came across my own name in an essay by a conservative economist who specializes in educational issues. The reason for my astonishment is that I was described as being “dead set against any fundamental changes in the nation’s schools.” Now having been accused with some regularity of arguing for too damn many fundamental changes in the nation’s schools, I found this new criticism more than a bit puzzling. But then I remembered that, during a TV interview a couple of years ago, another author from a different right-wing think tank had labeled me a “defender of the educational status quo.”

    In an earlier age, I might have suggested pistols at dawn as the only fitting response to these calumnies. But of course there’s a lot more going on here than the fact that one writer has had his radical credentials unjustly called into question. The point is that the mantle of school reform has been appropriated by those who oppose the whole idea of public schooling. Their aim is to paint themselves as bold challengers to the current system and to claim that defenders of public education lack the vision or courage to endorse meaningful change. This rhetorical assault seemed to come out of nowhere, as though a memo had been circulated one day among those on the right: “Attention. Effective immediately, all of our efforts to privatize the schools will be known as ‘reform,’ and any opposition to those efforts will be known as ‘anti-reform.’ That is all.”

    Silver-lining hunters may note that this strategy pays a backhanded compliment to the very idea of change. It implicitly acknowledges the inadequacy of conservatism, at least in the original sense of that word. These days everyone insists there’s a problem with the way things are. (On one level, this posture is familiar: Polemicists across the political spectrum frequently try to describe whatever position they’re about to criticize as “fashionable.” The implication is that only the bravest soul – that is, the writer – dares to support an unfashionable view.) But the word reform is particularly slippery and tendentious. The Associated Press Guide to Newswriting urges journalists to exercise caution about using it, pointing out that “one group’s reform can be another group’s calamity.”(1) At the same time, conservative politicians are being exhorted (for example, by a like-minded New York Times columnist) to embrace the word. “For my money,” David Brooks wrote earlier this year, “the best organizing principle for Republicans centers on the word ‘reform’” – which can give the impression that they want to “promote change, while Democrats remain the churlish defenders of the status quo.”(2)

    Of course, this begs the question of what kind of change is actually being promoted, but begging the question is really the whole point, isn’t it? The “reform” of environmental laws has often meant diluting them or simply washing them away. And just ask someone who depends on public assistance what “welfare reform” really implies. The privatizers and deregulators have gone after health care, prisons, banks, airlines, and electric utilities. Now they’re setting their sights on Social Security. I was recently reading about the added misery experienced by desperately poor families in various parts of the world as a result of the privatization of local water supplies. The clarity of language be damned: They come to bury a given institution rather than to improve it, but they describe their mission as “reform.” As Lily Tomlin once remarked, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”(3)


    But back to education. People with an animus against public schooling typically set the stage for their demolition plans by proclaiming that there isn’t much there worth saving. Meanwhile, those who object are portrayed as apologists for every policy in every school. It’s a very clever gambit, you have to admit. Either you’re in favor of privatization or else you are inexplicably satisfied with mediocrity.

    Let’s state what should be obvious, then. First, a defense of public education is wholly consistent with a desire for excellence. Second, by most conventional criteria, public schools have done surprisingly well in managing with limited resources to educate an increasingly diverse student population.(4) Third, notwithstanding that assessment, there’s plenty of room for dissatisfaction with the current state of our schools. An awful lot is wrong with them: the way conformity is valued over curiosity and enforced with rewards and punishments, the way children are compelled to compete against one another, the way curriculum so often privileges skills over meaning, the way students are prevented from designing their own learning, the way instruction and assessment are increasingly standardized, the way different avenues of study are rarely integrated, the way educators are systematically deskilled . . . And I’m just getting warmed up.

    Notice, however, that these criticisms are quite different from – in fact, often the exact opposite of – the particulars cited by most proponents of vouchers and similar “reforms.” To that extent, even if privatization worked exactly the way it was supposed to, we shouldn’t expect any of the defects I’ve just listed to be corrected. If anything, the micro-level impact (on teaching and learning) of such a macro-level shift is likely to exacerbate such problems. Making schools resemble businesses often results in a kind of pedagogy that’s not merely conservative but reactionary, turning back the clock on the few changes that have managed to infiltrate and improve classrooms. Consider the stultifyingly scripted lessons and dictatorial discipline that pervade for-profit charter schools. Or have a look at some research from England showing that “when schools have to compete for students, they tend to adopt ‘safe,’ conventional and teacher-centered methods, to stay close to the prescribed curriculum, and to tailor teaching closely to test-taking.”(5) (One more example of the destructive effects of competition.)…


    I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.

    How closely does my thought experiment match reality? One way to ascertain the actual motivation behind the widespread use of testing is to watch what happens in the real world when a lot of students manage to do well on a given test. Are schools credited and teachers congratulated? Hardly. The response, from New Jersey to New Mexico, is instead to make the test harder, with the result that many more students subsequently fail. [Addendum 2009: “Math scores are up on Long Island and statewide – enough so that state educational leaders could soon start raising the bar….Meryl Tisch of Manhattan, the new Chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said…’What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating but that New York State needs to raise its standards” (Newsday, June 1, 2009.]

    Consider this item from the Boston Globe:

    As the first senior class required to pass the MCAS exam prepares for graduation, state education officials are considering raising the passing grade for the exam. State Education Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education chairman James Peyser said the passing grade needs to be raised to keep the test challenging, given that a high proportion of students are passing it on the first try. . . . Peyser said as students continue to meet the standard, the state is challenged to make the exam meaningful.(9)

    You have to admire the sheer Orwellian chutzpah represented by that last word. By definition, a test is “meaningful” only if large numbers of students (and, by implication, schools) fare poorly on it. What at first seems purely perverse – a mindless acceptance of the premise that harder is always better – reveals itself instead as a strategic move in the service of a very specific objective. Peyser, you see, served for eight years as executive director of the conservative Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank devoted to “the application of free market principles to state and local policy” (in the words of its website). The man charged with overseeing public education in Massachusetts is critical of the very idea of public education. And how does he choose to pursue his privatizing agenda? By raising the bar until alarming failure(10) is assured.

    Of course, tougher standards are usually justified in the name of excellence – or, even more audaciously (given the demographics of most of the victims), equity. One doesn’t expect to hear people like Peyser casually concede that the real point of this whole standards-and-testing business is to make the schools look bad, the better to justify a free-market alternative. Now and then, however, a revealing comment does slip out. For example, when the School Choice Advocate, the newsletter of the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation, approvingly described Colorado’s policy of publishing schools’ test scores, a senior education advisor to Republican Governor Bill Owens remarked that the motive behind reporting these results was to “greatly enhance and build pressure for school choice.”(11)

    An op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal just before Christmas by William Bennett and Chester Finn underscored the integral relationship between the push for high-stakes testing (which they call “standards”), and the effort to undermine public schooling (which they call “freedom”). The latter bit of spin is interesting in its own right: Vouchers, having been decisively rejected by voters on several occasions, were promptly reintroduced as “school choice” to make them sound more palatable.(12) But apparently an even more blatant appeal to emotionally charged values is now called for. In any case, the article notes (correctly, I fear) that “our two political parties . . . can find common ground on testing and accountability,” but then goes on to announce that “what Republicans have going for them in education is freedom.” They understand this value “because of their business ties”; unlike Democrats, they are “not afraid of freedom.”

    Even in an era distinguished by unpleasantly adversarial discourse, Bennett and Finn redefine its lower depths with the charge that freedom is a “domain that few Democrats dare to visit.” (Their evidence for this charge is that most Democrats exclude private schools from choice plans.) But this nasty little essay, headlined “No Standards Without Freedom,” serves primarily to remind us that the most vocal proponents of accountability – defined, as it usually is these days, in terms of top-down standards and coercive pressure to raise scores on an endless series of standardized tests – have absolutely no interest in improving the schools that struggle to fulfill these requirements. Public education in their view is not something to be made better; it is something from which we need to be freed.

    1. “The point is that the mantle of school reform has been appropriated by those who oppose the whole idea of public schooling. Their aim is to paint themselves as bold challengers to the current system and to claim that defenders of public education lack the vision or courage to endorse meaningful change.”


      Kohn exposes not only the “educational reform movement” but also shows LJM’s “tell” giveaway of an agenda. It’s all done in a manner to make one believe it is about children, when in fact it is both anti-child and anti-teacher.
      Then again we have some ex-teachers who comment here, who are themselves anti-teacher, but such was their tutorial commitment that they no longer teach. Telling.

  18. What Passes for School Reform: “Value-Added” Teacher Evaluation and Other Absurdities
    By Alfie Kohn
    Posted: 09/ 9/10

    The less people know about teaching and learning, the more sympathetic they’re likely to be to the kind of “school reform” that’s all the rage these days. Look, they say, some teachers (and schools) are lousy, aren’t they? And we want kids to receive a better education — including poor kids, who typically get the short end of the stick, right? So let’s rock the boat a little! Clean out the dead wood, close down the places that don’t work, slap public ratings on these suckers just like restaurants that have to display the results of their health inspections.

    On my sunnier days, I manage to look past the ugliness of the L.A. Times’s unconscionable public shaming of teachers who haven’t “added value” to their students, the sheer stupidity and arrogance of Newsweek’s cover story on the topic last spring, the fact that the editorials and columns about education in every major newspaper in the U.S. seem to have been written by the same person, all reflecting an uncritical acceptance of the Bush-Obama-Gates version of school reform.

    I try to put it all down to mere ignorance and tamp down darker suspicions about what’s going on. If I squeeze my eyes tightly, I can almost see how a reasonable person, someone who doesn’t want to widen the real gap between the haves and have-nots (which is what tends to happen when attention is focused on the gap in test scores), might look at what’s going on and think that it sounds like common sense.

    Unfortunately, the people who know the most about the subject tend to work in the field of education, which means their protests can be dismissed. Educational theorists and researchers are just “educationists” with axes to grind, hopelessly out of touch with real classrooms. And the people who spend their days in real classrooms, teaching our children — well, they’re just afraid of being held accountable, aren’t they? (Actually, proponents of corporate-style school reform find it tricky to attack teachers, per se, so they train their fire instead on the unions that represent them.) Once the people who do the educating have been excluded from a conversation about how to fix education, we end up hearing mostly from politicians, corporate executives, and journalists.

    This type of reform consists of several interlocking parts, powered by a determination to “test kids until they beg for mercy,” as the late Ted Sizer once put it. Test scores are accepted on faith as a proxy for quality, which means we can evaluate teachers on the basis of how much value they’ve added — “value” meaning nothing more than higher scores. That, in turn, paves the way for manipulation by rewards and punishments: Dangle more money in front of the good teachers (with some kind of pay-for-performance scheme) and shame or fire the bad ones. Kids, too, can be paid for jumping through hoops. (It’s not a coincidence that this incentive-driven model is favored by economists, who have a growing influence on educational matters and who still tend to accept a behaviorist paradigm that most of psychology left behind ages ago.)

    “Reform” also means diverting scarce public funds to charter schools, many of them run by for-profit corporations. It means standardizing what’s taught (and ultimately tested) from coast to coast, as if uniformity was synonymous with quality. It means reducing job security for teachers, even though tenure just provides due-process protections so people can’t be sacked arbitrarily. It means attacking unions at every opportunity, thereby winning plaudits from the folks who, no matter what the question, mutter menacingly about how the damned unions are to blame.

    And of course it means describing as “a courageous challenge to the failed status quo” what is really just an intensification of the same tactics that have been squeezing the life out of our classrooms for a good quarter-century now. That intensification has been a project of the Obama administration, even though, as Rep. John Kline (R-MN) remarked the other day, in its particulars it comes “straight from the traditional Republican playbook.”

    We can show that merit pay is counterproductive, that closing down struggling schools (or firing principals) makes no sense, that charters have a spotty record overall (and one much-cited study to the contrary is deeply flawed), that high-stakes testing has never been shown to produce any benefit other than higher scores on other standardized tests (and even that only sporadically). To make these points is not to deny that there are some lousy teachers out there. Of course there are. But there are far more good teachers who are being turned into bad teachers as a direct result of these policies.

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