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Charter School Kool-Aid: Experience “Doesn’t Matter”





As the New York Times reported on August 27 (“At Charter Schools, Short Careers By Choice”) most charter school teachers only remain in the profession for two to five years. In contrast, traditional public school teachers average nearly fourteen years of experience. But in the fantasy world of charter school proponents, far from being a shortcoming this lack of teaching experience is a positive. One charter school official told the Times, “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.” Wendy Kopp, whose Teach for America program is criticized for high turnover, said “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

I’ve never met a teacher who believes they were “great” in their first two years. But the business model for charter schools relies on this fiction. It requires their advocates to praise inexperienced teachers and high turnover even though every other profession—law, medicine, accounting and all of the construction trades—value experience and longevity. The turnover numbers are further evidence that the case for charter schools is unraveling, as veteran teachers and activists are winning the battle against elite-driven “reform.”

After years of being on the defensive over high teacher turnover rate for charter schools and participants in Teach for America, proponents of these programs have embraced this shortcoming and reconstituted it as an asset. But while the adage, if you have a lot of lemons make lemonade can work in some contexts, the idea that inexperienced teachers and high turnover is a good thing is not a flavor of Kool-Aid many parents want to drink.

Experience Matters

According to an October 2012 report in the American Educational Research Journal, teacher turnover harms school achievement. The study examined the impacts of teacher turnover on over 850,000 New York City fourth- and fifth-grade student observations over eight years. The “results indicate that students in grade levels with higher turnover score lower in both English language arts (ELA) and math and that these effects are particularly strong in schools with more low-performing and Black students. Moreover, the results suggest that there is a disruptive effect of turnover beyond changing the distribution in teacher quality.”

This conclusion should not come as a surprise. We all know from our own school experience that teachers take time to adjust to new schools. Many must learn to teach a new subject and/or curriculum, and it takes time to adapt to a new school environment.

But the business model for charter schools requires a constant inflow of new teachers. This is because each entering group is soon burned out by the long work hours and requirement that they be available to take evening phone calls from students.

For some recent grads or those only a few years out of college, the long hours teaching in charter schools is worth it, as they get salaries typically higher than traditional public school teachers of similar experience. But just as these young people are really learning their trade (and KIPP teachers last only four years), they leave for greener pastures and/or more rewarding and less stressful work environments.

Many of these burned out teachers leave the profession extremely demoralized. That’s why I wrote a piece last March urging young people to “Think Twice About Teach for America.”

If defenders of high teacher turnover rates had to undergo surgery, they would want a veteran doctor. If involved with a lawsuit, they would want an experienced attorney to try their case.

That’s because in nearly every profession, people put a premium on those with successful experience. Yet charter school advocates want the public to believe that the teaching profession is an exception, notwithstanding the evidence and what we know from our own common sense.

An educational “reform” movement that promotes testing and “objective” measures of teacher, student and school evaluation is now promoting high teacher turnover rates that clearly do not work.

Parents and the public are not fooled. As with charter schools’ failure to raise test scores, the hype behind the charter school “alternative” again fails to match reality.

(Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron, where this post first appeared. His post is republished with permission.)

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