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?”

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  2. Market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality
    The impacts of test-based teacher evaluations, school closures, and increased charter school access on student outcomes in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

    Executive summary
    Top-down pressure from federal education policies such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, combined with organized advocacy efforts, is making a popular set of market-oriented education “reforms” look more like the new status quo than real reform. Reformers assert that test-based teacher evaluation, increased school “choice” through expanded access to charter schools, and the closure of “failing” and underenrolled schools will boost falling student achievement and narrow longstanding race- and income-based achievement gaps. The 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman presented these policies as sure fixes for education woes closely correlated with child poverty.

    This report from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education examines these assertions by assessing the impacts of these reforms in three large urban school districts: Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. These districts were chosen for study because all enjoyed the benefit of mayoral control, produce reliable district-level test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and were led by vocal proponents who implemented versions of this reform agenda. Indeed, former reform leaders in all three cities have become high-profile national proponents who disseminate the agenda across multiple districts and states.

    The report finds that the reforms delivered few benefits and in some cases harmed the students they purport to help. It also identifies a set of largely neglected policies with real promise to weaken the poverty-education link, if they receive some of the attention and resources now targeted to the touted reforms. Specifically the report finds:

    – Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in “reform” cities than in other urban districts.
    – Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
    – Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
    – School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
    – Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
    – Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
    – The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance.
    – Real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient, and multipronged.

  3. The Failure of Corporate School Reform: Toward a New Common School Movement
    Kenneth Saltman
    National Education Policy Center
    December 8, 2011

    In the United States, a corporate model of schooling has overtaken educational policy, practice, curriculum and nearly all aspects of educational reform.

    While this movement began on the political right, the corporate school model has been heralded across the political spectrum and is aggressively embraced by both major parties. Corporate school reformers champion private-sector approaches to reform including, especially, privatization, deregulation and the importation of terms and assumptions from business, while they imagine public schools as private businesses, districts as markets, students as consumers and knowledge as product. Corporate school reform aims to transform public schooling into a private industry nationally by replacing public schools with privately managed charter schools, voucher schemes and tax credit scholarships for private schooling. The massive expansion of deunionized, nonprofit, privately managed charter schools with short-term contracts is an intermediary step toward the declaration of their failure and replacement by the for-profit industry in Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). EMOs extract profit by cutting teacher pay and educational resources while relying on high teacher turnover and labor precarity.(i) Corporate school reform seeks solutions to public problems in private-sector ways, from contracting out schools and services, to union-busting, a wholesale embrace of numerical benchmarking and database tracking and the modeling of schooling and administration on multiple aspects of corporate culture. Policy hawks make demands, for example, for teacher entrepreneurialism, or insist that students dress like retail chain workers and call school heads “CEO”; or install corporate models of numerical “accountability,” paying students for grades and teachers for test scores; or leaders play intricate Wall Street-style shell games with test performance to show rising “return on investment”; or teachers assign students the task of crafting a resume for Benjamin Franklin; BP was involved in creating California’s new science curriculum: the examples are endless.

    Despite the fact that corporate school reforms have expanded at an exponential speed, the dominant corporate school reforms have failed on their own terms. Such reformers have insisted on “accountability” through test scores and lowering costs, but it is precisely in reference to these accountability measures that corporate school reforms have failed. The failing policies that are being aggressively implemented nonetheless include: contracting out management to privately managed charters or for-profit educational management organizations;(ii) putting in place voucher schemes or neo-voucher scholarship tax credits;(iii)expanding commercialism;(iv) imposing corporate “turnaround” models on schools and faculty(v) that often involve firing entire faculties and administrations, reducing curriculum and pedagogy to narrow numerically quantifiable and anti-intellectual, anti-critical test-based forms; the creation of “portfolio districts” that imagine districts as a stock portfolio and schools as stock investments;(vi) reorganizing teacher education and educational leadership on the model of the MBA degree;(vii) and the elimination of advanced degrees and certification in favor of pay-for-test-performance schemes such as value added assessment.(viii)

    These corporate school reforms are deeply interwoven with commercial interests in the multibillion dollar test and textbook publishing industries, the information technology and database tracking industries and the contracting industries.(ix) The corporate sector has in the last decade positioned education in the United States as a roughly $600 billion per year “industry,” ripe for takeover.(x) As directions for future economic growth are uncertain, public tax money in public services appears to corporations and the super-rich, who are flush from decades of upward redistributions, as tantalizing to pillage.(xi) These upward redistributions of public wealth and governance are particularly obvious in Wisconsin and New Jersey as tax cuts on the super-rich and corporations and slush funds for business development are funded by defunding public and higher education; attacking teacher pay, benefits and unions; expanding privatization schemes including vouchers, charters, tuition fee hikes; and shifting educational costs onto individual working-class and professional-class individuals. The same agenda is being enacted in Michigan, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania – to name a few. Chicago could be considered the blueprint with its Renaissance 2010 plan designed by the Commercial Club and implemented by Arne Duncan. That plan – which resulted in failure to raise test scores or lower costs – succeeded in privatizing and deunionizing about 100 of the 600 schools in the district.

  4. Nick,

    Most educators don’t have a problem with testing students. Many educators, however, have a big problem with the mania for high stakes testing that has taken over this country–a mania brought to us courtesy of so-called school reformers…many of whom had ulterior motives. Prepping children for multiple choice tests shouldn’t be a major focus of education. Unfortunately, it is these days.

  5. Nick & Gene,

    One big problem has been the State Boards of Education in some states. Members of those boards aren’t elected. They are appointed.


    State boards of education are integral to the governance of public education in the United States. State Boards, operating as a lay body over state education, are intended to serve as an unbiased broker for education decisionmaking, focusing on the big picture, articulating the long-term vision and needs of public education, and making policy based on the best interests of the public and the young people of America.

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