Charter School Teachers Aren’t Sticking Around

Two Vanderbilt scholars have released their findings on teacher retention in charter schools. The initial numbers may be considered a boon for charter haters. Corey Bower, who writes Thoughts on Education Policy and is pursuing a PhD at Vanderbilt, gets a big nod for his analysis of the study.

from Thoughts on Education Policy

Debra Viadero reported last week on a paper by Dave Stuit and Tom Smith finding that charter school teachers are 230% more likely to leave the field (an updated version actually pegs it at 237%) at the end of the year than are teachers in traditional public schools, based on data from 2003-04.

Given that both writers are from Vanderbilt and that I find the topic interesting, I thought I’d look into it further. It’s a conference paper — not a finished paper that’s been peer-reviewed and published in a journal — so I’m not going to get into significant detail. While I’m sure it’s not perfect and that it will undergo further revisions, I will say that the methodology seems pretty straightforward and that I trust both of the writers to investigate things rigorously and interpret them correctly, so my guess is that when the final version is released most of these figures will remain about the same. That said, let’s get to it.

The most striking finding was that charter school teachers were more than twice as likely to leave the field as are teachers in traditional public schools — the raw numbers are 14.1% and 7.0% (please note that the 230% estimate is based on log-odds ratios calculated using Hierachical General Linear Models controlling for clustering in schools*). They also calculated that charter school teachers were 113% as likely to transfer to another school.

They also found turnover nearly twice as high in schools that were new start-ups versus schools that had been converted to charter schools — which makes sense because a new start-up would have more growing pains and instability than would a converted school.

But the most important question is why charter school teachers were more likely to leave the profession. Based on survey responses from those who left, charter school teachers were about twice as likely to report leaving for better salary and benefits (46%/22%), dissatisfaction iwth school (51%/24%), or due to school staffing action (40%/20%), and more than three times as likely to report leaving to pursue additional coursework outside education (27%/8%). They were also about one-third as likely to report leaving due to retirement (14%/38%).

In short, it seems that more teachers are leaving to move on to bigger and better things. This makes sense if we consider how many charter schools pluck people to serve as almost missionaries for a few years (think KIPP and their use of TFA fellows). I would expect that charter schools employ more people who are teaching as a way to give back to the community for a few years and fewer people that want to make a career out of teaching than are traditional public schools. Indeed, if we look at the demographics, charter schools employ more people under the age of 30 (34%/20%) and fewer over the age of 50 (18%/29%) than do traditional public schools. Teachers are also much less likely to be certified (67%/90%), and one would imagine that investing the time and effort into getting certified means that a teacher both intends to stay longer and will now be more likely to stay longer.

I think Corey’s point about the kind of teachers charters attract is a good one. Public schools tend to hire those who have gone through traditional training; ed school, certification, union members. They come out expecting certain things. They expect low pay, low expectations, and a struggle (I realize I am generalizing some)

Charter schools garner those who may not otherwise have become teachers. That is, as Corey said, also their problem. That teacher who is outside of the box will be more likely to keep their eyes open for something better, something further up the ladder.

Some will use this study as ammo against charters. Those that do don’t really understand the charter system. If you’ve seen one charter school you’ve seen one charter school. You can’t study them as you would the public system. They can’t really be lumped together with demographics. Each charter must be examined as its own entity. Each state charter must be looked at alone as well. That doesn’t mean national studies like these are out of the question, only that they must be looked at in context