At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice

In an age of Teach For America, value-added teacher evaluations, and new challenges for teachers such as teaching to Common Core, teacher tenure is as big of an issue as ever. Many studies show that experienced teachers are more proficient, although there is some evidence that teachers can stagnate over time. In addition, the baby boomer generation, often the teachers who have been “lifers”, are aging, meaning that younger teachers, who were raised with different ideas about job tenure, are filling their spots.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Motoko Rich explores the fact that many Charter Schools accept that their teachers do not plan to make teaching their careers. Charter schools, which receive public money but are privately run, have vaulted the issue of teacher tenure further to the forefront because they endeavor to be different by design.  Some of those differences include principals in their 20’s, unique merit-based salary increase schedules, and longer hours.

Below are some selections from the article:

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers’ unions and others in the traditional education establishment argue that charter schools are driving teachers away with longer hours and school years, as well as higher workplace demands. (At YES Prep, for example, all teachers are assigned a cellphone to answer any student call for homework assistance until 9 p.m.)

Baby boomers who went into teaching tended to stay in the profession for decades. But as they have retired, the teaching corps has shifted toward the less experienced. According to an analysis of federal data by Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, the proportion of teachers with five or fewer years of experience rose to 28 percent in 2007-8 from 17 percent in 1987-88.

Other charter networks have similar career arcs for teachers. At Success Academy Charter Schools, a chain run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, the average is about four years in the classroom. KIPP, one of the country’s best known and largest charter operators, with 141 schools in 20 states, also keeps teachers in classrooms for an average of about four years.

Charter leaders say they are able to sustain rapid turnover in teaching staff because they prepare young recruits and coach them as they progress. At YES Prep, new teachers go through two and a half weeks of training over the summer, learning common disciplinary methods and working with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.

Since the Charter School movement is still relatively new, at least on the scale it has reached recently, only time will tell if the model prescribed by these charter schools can be maintained long-term or if it will produce the desired results in students.

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