Several weeks ago, students and teachers said their good-byes for the summer. Far too many teachers also say good-bye each summer, however, to the teaching profession itself. I wrote a few months ago about the harmful effects on student achievement of high teacher turnover rates. Although these effects hold true across school types, a new report from Teach Plus examines teacher turnover in charter schools. Teach Plus reports charter schools on average lose about one in four teachers from year to year. According to researchers from Vanderbilt University’s National Center on School Choice, this rate exceeds the national average turnover rate of 14 percent per year.
Why do more charter school teachers either change schools or leave the profession altogether than their traditional public school counterparts? First, charter schools tend to serve students from low income and minority backgrounds—student groups whose learning growth has historically lagged their peers from higher income and white families. The work of catching those students up and then pushing them forward can be especially draining for teachers, and this strain will likely be exacerbated without support from effective school leaders.
Charter schools also often attract younger teachers who come to the job through non-traditional routes such as Teach For America. According to researchers from the University of Michigan, Stanford, and the University of Virginia, these teachers tend to leave their positions at higher rates than their peers who have spent more time in the classroom and entered the profession through traditional approaches to certification.
Additional considerations include the low pay teachers can expect and the all-consuming nature of their work, as reflected by a recent Gates Foundation survey finding a typical teacher’s work day spans nearly 11 hours. That same survey found professional development to be lacking in all schools, since only 22 percent of teachers in relevant grade levels and subject areas feel very prepared to teach Common Core State Standards.
As in all schools, however, leadership matters. As the Teach Plus report states, “Teachers are more likely to remain in their schools when administrators have a clear, consistent vision for the school, and regularly use that vision to make strategic decisions.” Good school leaders promote high standards for students, faculty, and staff alike, and they instill a sense of shared purpose. Whether or not a school is a charter, strong teachers are much more likely to continue working where they feel supported and part of a focused mission to enhance student achievement.
What can be done to stem the teacher turnover rate in charter schools? Action steps recommended by Teach Plus could hold promise for charter and traditional public schools alike:
- Build a culture of mutual feedback for continuous improvement – Encourage candid feedback from teachers about the performance of school leadership and their belief in the school’s effectiveness.
- Protect teachers’ time for great teaching – Shield as much of teachers’ time as possible from administrative duties (e.g., lunch duty and hall monitoring) and enable them to focus on planning, instruction, collaborating with colleagues, and supporting students in need of additional help.
- Establish clear pathways for teachers – Build career pathways that open avenues for career advancement for teachers within their schools. Many ideas on career path development are receiving attention through the U.S. Department of Education’s RESPECT Project.
- Establish practices that respond to the personal needs of teachers – Provide flexible scheduling opportunities for teachers in order to allow them to attend to their personal lives. YES Prep in Houston, for example, provides monthly “Mental Health Wednesdays” for their teachers.
Teachers in charter schools are often at the start of their careers, and from knowing many beginning teachers, I am familiar with their moments of self-doubt and challenge. These doubts and struggles only take firmer hold when teachers do not feel they have the leadership or professional support to overcome them. Great schools start with great leaders, just as great classrooms start with great teachers. By taking intentional steps to recruit and retain leaders who can support teachers and meet their needs, schools can create positive working environments that also become effective learning environments.
Teachers are not in their jobs for the money, but they ask for respect in their work and support when they are in need. We all have a stake in making sure they get both.