Why Charter Schools Have High Teacher Turnover

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Opportunity Charter School, with 44 percent teacher attrition in 2011-12, actually saw lower turnover than 18 other city charter schools—at least according to state data, which some schools dispute.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Opportunity Charter School, with 44 percent teacher attrition in 2011-12, actually saw lower turnover than 18 other city charter schools—at least according to state data, which some schools dispute.

High-quality teachers are integral to academic achievement, experts agree, from Finland and Singapore to East New York and Morrisania. Cultivating excellent teachers and retaining them in the profession are paramount goals, shared by a bevy of bedfellows usually at odds in the education-reform debate, from teachers unions to charter-school champions like the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations.

But according to data from the New York State Department of Education, charter schools in New York City lose far more teachers every year than their traditional school counterparts. In some schools, more than half of faculty "turn over" from one school year to the next, according to NYSED school report cards.

Charter advocates at the New York City Charter School Center and at Success Academies, the city's largest charter network, say that at least some of the turnover is due to movement within school networks—teachers moving up the leadership ladder, for example, or to seed the faculty of new schools, which have opened at a rapid clip in recent years.

But even so, it's hard to explain a churn of more than half the veteran faculty, which is the case at 15 percent of charter schools for which the state reports data.

With so much scholarship on developing and holding onto talented teachers, why are New York's charter schools essentially draining of talent every year, with schools routinely losing a third, half, or, in extreme cases, up to two-thirds of classroom teachers? What happens to schools when faculty lounges have revolving doors? And how do charter leaders and advocates respond?

Big numbers, some disputes

New York State collects information on myriad data points for traditional and charter schools alike. Because so many charters opened late in the final Bloomberg term (or were scheduled by Mayor Bloomberg's team to open early in Mayor de Blasio's tenure), not all data is available on all 183 charter schools currently open. NYSED posted 2011-2012 teacher attrition data only on 70 city charter schools, tracking how many teachers left their jobs within their first five years of teaching and how many left overall.

Of the schools with available attrition data, 15 lost at least half of their teachers with five years or less experience. Another 13 schools lost at least 40 percent of these less-experienced teachers.

Teacher Turnover, 2011-2012: New Teachers

The situation is not much better for veteran teachers, who are often the minority in charter schools: Of the 70 schools, 10 lost more than half of their veteran faculty in the '11-'12 academic year; 24 schools saw more than 40 percent of experienced teachers exit. (See the chart below.)

Near the top of the turnover chart is the Success Academies system led by former Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. With 22 schools and 10 new schools opening in August 2014, it is the city's largest charter chain.

In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year. In one school, three out of four teachers departed.

But Moskowitz's network cites different figures. "Our teacher retention rate is 83 percent," says Ann Powell, senior managing partner for communications. "This work is extraordinarily hard, and while we'd like the rate to be 100 percent, we could not be more proud of our teachers and leaders."

Indeed, statistics from sources other than NYSED point to lower attrition rates—though the numbers are still substantial. According to a 2012 report from the New York City Charter School Center, average teacher attrition rates in New York City charters ranged from a low of 26 percent to a high of 33 percent, or one in three teachers—compared with traditional-public-school attrition rates of 13 to 16 percent. Those numbers are averages, incorporating attrition rates from all city charter and traditional public schools.

Teacher Turnover, 2011-2012: All Teachers

C is for Consequences

Attrition matters a great deal for teachers in the schools, whose professional community must consistently adapt to new teachers, experts say, and to students who—accustomed as they may be to changing teachers every year—bear the subtler effects of being the human guinea pigs for rookie teachers in their debut academic posting.

Even Teach for America—which places young college grads in high-need, urban classrooms for a two-year teaching commitment, and currently has nearly 500 teachers in city charter schools—understands the value of experience: "We know that teachers with more experience under their belt are often more effective," says TFA communications director Katie Ware.

To better understand the charter churn, City Limits asked the New York City Charter Center, NYC charter schools' umbrella organization, for comment. They declined to comment for the record but suggested we contact the NYC DOE, whom we'd also asked for clarification. DOE spokesperson Harry Hartfield told us to talk to the charters themselves because Tweed doesn't track charter data. Meanwhile, the state education department said only: "The Department will work with the schools to resolve any discrepancies that may exist with the numbers reported."

While education agencies and institutions seem to be punting the ball, it seems likely that individual charter schools are taking note of the turnover issue.

Moskowitz famously expressed frustration about exiting faculty in 2011, when about a third of school staff left her school network for other jobs—midyear, after the school year had commenced. (Some even sent midnight emails resigning their positions, according to The New York Times.)

"It's hard for kids and families when you have an exodus," Moscowitz wrote in a newsletter to the school community. She also wrote to staff members, "This is not a ‘gig,'" charging that the midyear exits were unethical.

Worth noting is the fact that despite the high reported annual teacher turnover within her network, scores on state standardized tests remain high for Success Academy , as they do for many other charter-school students, often surpassing nearby traditional public schools, particularly in math. And Success students outstripped thousands of other city kids in the most recent round of standardized tests. But whether test scores are proxies for good teaching or proof of a commitment to comprehensive test prep remains an open debate.

City Limits also asked the Harlem Children's Zone about attrition at their charter schools: According to the state figures, nearly 40 percent of less-experienced teachers left the flagship Promise Academy school, as did 36 percent of veterans. HCZ declined to address attrition directly, but offered the following statement from new HCZ head Anne Williams-Isom: "All 12,000 of our kids, including the 1,800 in our charter schools, are well aware that they are surrounded by a community of caring adults. . . . They understand that this organization is here for them for whatever they need, 24/7, until they graduate college."

C is for Causes

One veteran charter school teacher who requested anonymity, wary of her school's response to her comments, says that even as schools use teachers, teachers use schools—as way stations to other, long-term goals. Often, she said, new teachers work for a year or two at a charter school to buff up a resume, ahead of a search for a union job. "People go there [to charters] until they can get another job. It's a stepping stone to a teaching career, to a union job with benefits, like vacation, and tenure."

Meanwhile, across the charter sector, research has confirmed that teachers who shoulder demanding workloads—often ranging from 60 to 80 hours a week—burn out. According to Torres's 2013 study, a teacher with an unmanageable workload faced a 370 percent greater risk of leaving than a less-burdened peer.

Plenty burn out when schools require very long days, evening and weekend work. "The workload is particularly challenging, especially for people coming fresh out of college," the veteran teacher said. "And there's not a lot of protections for teachers. It's easy to get fired." Easy, too, for people to quit—as they do, throughout the school year.

Daunting workloads are cited as possible reasons to leave by many sources, including education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch, education professors Pedro Noguera and David Bloomfield, as well as advocates at Teach for America, Success Academies and the New York Charter Center. Long days, evening obligations, weekend events are all routine. Many teachers work a 10 or 12 hour day, and pour their hearts into the work.

That demand reflects the kind of intense commitment that's feasible short-term but can become unsustainable in the longer run, as personal responsibilities accrue, as they do for most who move from their 20s into their 30s, 40s and beyond. And it's plain exhausting, emotionally and physically, many say: The kind of white-hot passion that compels an idealistic 22-year-old, fresh out of college and into a South Bronx classroom, tends to burn out in time.

At the same time, stringent teacher evaluations, characteristic of many charters, can urge consideration of another profession. (Not all teachers who leave do so on their own initiative.)

"Some schools have a financial incentive to hire less experienced teachers, since they are paid less," Noguera tells CityLimits.org. "It's impossible to generalize," he cautions, but adds that "teachers in charter schools typically work longer hours and in many cases have no avenues to express concerns about working conditions since they are not represented by unions."

Ravitch says that high turnover suggests one of two things—and possibly, she says, both are true. "One, difficult working conditions; two, people who entered teaching with no intention of making it their career." Ravitch cites the familiar example of Teach for America's two-year requirement. And according to Powell, Success Academies offers a teacher-training program that requires only one year of service after certification.

Bloomfield points to a phenomenon of young teachers gaining experience in charters, then moving into union schools. "Without unionization, demands on teachers may be more onerous," and compensation, in terms of salary, benefits and pension, much less than UFT teachers earn. Bloomfield says that teachers with a year or more of experience may then opt to move into the traditional publics. Conversely, he notes, teachers from traditional DOE schools may work at charters for a year or two, then return to DOE/UFT settings to maintain their benefits, which do not move with them into the charter sector.

"Budgets matter, too," Bloomfield said. "In a non-tenured system, experienced teachers are let go, as they become more expensive."

The 2012 Charter School Center report raises another troubling issue, shifting focus from the classroom to the principal's office: It notes that about one in five charter school leaders were brand new in the 2011-12 academic year—compared with one in 25 in traditional DOE schools. New principals are an inevitable part of opening new schools, of course, but new leadership carries risk. According to Chris Torres, a researcher at Montclair State University who studied city charters while at NYU, new school leaders lose more teachers than veterans. Typically, Torres wrote, if a principal was in his or her first year, "the odds of teachers deciding to leave . . . are between 2.4 and 3 times greater." This is particularly resonant given the rapid expansion of the charter sector.

G is for Growth

Attrition matters more as charters multiply, particularly among New York's most impoverished neighborhoods: Nearly two-thirds of charter schools are in Harlem, Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Demand for charters is steep and persistent—on this, there is no argument—as parents look to charters as no-excuses alternatives to local schools.

But as the sector grows—with 14 new charter schools coming on line this fall, bringing the total to 197 schools—it's important to consider how (or whether) the charter sector develops the kind of teaching talent that's in the profession for a long enough haul to make a difference: Academics and teachers in the trenches agree that most teachers hit professional proficiency within three to five years of entering the profession, and that growth ideally continues over decades.

Many schools counter the attrition drain, according to Torres, by taking turnover "as a given" and shore up curriculum systems to withstand changes in personnel. "It's too bad [that teachers leave], but it's part of the climate," said the charter-school teacher from Queens. "Basically, you just keep going."

Unfortunately, the data so key to accountability—across the public sector, and among charters in particular—are lacking, despite ample anecdotal reports (and strong opinions, on both sides of the question). Unless and until the schools, the networks, the New York City Charter Center or the State, which authorizes and renews charter schools, begin to track and analyze attrition, understanding why teachers leave charters at twice the rate of their traditional-public-school peers remains a mystery that risks potential harm to students, teachers, schools and the New York communities they serve.

For now, says the veteran teacher, it's best not to get too attached, the teacher said. "I compare it to watching a movie about Viet Nam," she told City Limits. "You should never get too attached to anyone in your platoon."

  • Ron

    I was a teacher in one of the charter schools towards the lower end of the spectrum (about 30%) turnover. It felt like a lot more than 30%. The best teachers were always leaving after a few years. I cannot overstate what a profoundly negative impact this has on students, both psychologically and academically.

    I, and many of my friends, left for several reasons. Some of them are the same as the reasons so many people leave teaching in general. Frustration over a lack of respect from students, parents, and administrators was a key factor. However, the main factors were specific to the charter movement. We did not have a real contract; our jobs had to be ‘renewed’ every year. As a result we had no job security. I saw may teachers ‘let go.’ We also had poor medical benefits, no tenure, no union, no pension, and poor pay with little or no increase from year to year.

    The charter schools will encounter high turnover rates until these problems are dealt with.

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