The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
A revolving door for charter teachers
Charter schools had to replace an average of more than half of their teachers between 2008 and 2010, a turnover rate on par with some of the most troubled district-run schools.
Experts say that high teacher turnover is associated with a school in turmoil and that instability often hampers student performance.
Of the 10 charter schools with the highest turnover, only one—LEARN Charter—had the majority of its students score at or above the state average on the ISAT.
Chicago’s charter teacher turnover—from an analysis of charter employee lists obtained by Catalyst Chicago—mirrors a nationwide trend.
In a recently published study, researchers from Vanderbilt University found that charter school teacher turnover was almost double that of traditional public schools: 25 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively. (The study used data from National Center for Education Statistics surveys for 2003-04, the most recent available.)
Charter school teachers were also more likely to leave the profession altogether, according to the study from the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt.
Many factors could play a role in driving up turnover.
Some charter school operators cite leadership changes. Chandra Sledge, co-director of Young Women’s Leadership Charter, says the school lost a big chunk of teachers at the end of 2009 because the principal left.
“That was the most that we’ve ever had leave at one time. This year, we didn’t have much turnover,” Sledge says. (She notes that several of the teachers who left were promoted to managerial positions within Chicago Public Schools.)
Linda Wing, director of schools and community engagement at the University of Chicago, says that the North Kenwood-Oakland Charter School has had a stable staff over the past 12 years.
But at the University of Chicago’s charter high school in Woodlawn, which opened in 2006, turnover has been an issue. Wing says it has been difficult to find the right faculty to work with urban teenagers.
“There is a small and inadequate pool of teachers who have the cultural competence and know-how to connect with our students,” she says. “It is a very challenging job.”
Charter schools are often demanding, which can cause swift burnout. Like many charter schools, the University of Chicago charter expects teachers to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 190 days of the year. By comparison, CPS teachers work five hours and 45 minutes a day, 170 days a year.
“You need a lot of stamina to be up and going from 8 to 5,” Wing says. “We ask a lot of our teachers.”
Charter supporters are quick to say that high turnover is not always bad—in fact, sometimes it is good because not everyone is cut out to work in an urban school with high expectations of students and staff.
Jaime Guzman, who recently left his post as director of CPS’ Office of New Schools, says that he does not consider teacher turnover to be bad, as long as the school is producing results.
Also, charter schools can get rid of bad teachers without having to deal with a union, says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Some consider this to be one of the advantages of charters. (Two Chicago charter schools have unionized in the past year: the Chicago International schools operated by Civitas, where teacher turnover is higher than the average for charters; and Aspira, where turnover has been slightly lower than average.)
“Our charters don’t always get it right,” Broy says. “But in the best-case scenario they can move out low performers and identify high performers.” The national Vanderbilt study, however, found that charter turnover was more likely to be voluntary and based on dissatisfaction with working conditions, not due to schools ridding themselves of underperforming teachers.
Juan Rangel, CEO of UNO, says that while teachers might leave, senior staff do not move around as much and help provide stability. In addition to directors who meet weekly, UNO also has a cadre of master teachers who coach and mentor new teachers.
Rangel says he values the charter network’s “young, vigorous teachers,” but also likes to see teachers stay around and move up in the ranks, even if those moves create an appearance of staff instability.
Katie Raiche, a teacher at the UNO charter school in Archer Heights, says her experience has been good. Raiche says she always knew she wanted to work in an urban environment, and at UNO, she got that experience without having to deal with some of the problems associated with urban schools.
“Our discipline problems are very low,” Raiche says. “There are no gangs and no violence. Really, sometimes you forget you are working in a Chicago public school.”
Raiche has seen turnover first-hand. This is her third year at an UNO school, and yet she’s one of the veterans. Last year, when she taught at another UNO campus, 75 percent of the teachers were in their first year. Research has shown that teachers typically don’t perfect their craft until after their first two years on the job.
To Raiche, though, having brand-new teachers is not necessarily bad. “New teachers are enthusiastic and open to new ideas. They are not stuck in their ways.”
But youth can be a strong predictor of turnover. Teachers in their 20s are still settling down, and changes in life circumstances often lead to their departure. That’s happening with Raiche: At the end of the school year, she left UNO to move with her fiancé to Philadelphia.
Christopher Mazzeo, associate director for policy and outreach for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, says that the teacher turnover revealed by Catalyst’s analysis “seems high, and that is worth being concerned about.”
Mazzeo co-authored a study, published in 2009, on teacher turnover in CPS. The study found that 51 percent of elementary school teachers and 54 percent of high school teachers leave their schools within four years. If charter schools are reaching similar rates in just two years, that raises a red flag.
High turnover makes it hard for schools to build continuity over time and for lessons learned in professional development to take hold, Mazzeo says. Charter schools set aside money each year for professional development, ranging from a few thousand to $50,000, according to a Catalyst analysis of charter budget documents. But that money is wasted if teachers quickly leave their jobs.
Teachers in schools with high turnover inevitably blame a bad school environment for driving teachers out, Mazzeo adds. Research has consistently shown that teachers value a good school climate over higher pay.
Natasha Cavitt, a teacher at Noble Street College Prep, makes that case. She has been there for five years and loves it. Before coming to Noble Street, Cavitt taught at another charter high school that she says had significant discipline problems—which made her job more difficult and less enjoyable.
Noble Street, however, stresses the need for discipline and lets students know the expectations. “The structure is clearly defined and they know how far they can go,” Cavitt says. “They perform better.”
Now that Cavitt is a veteran with a track record of teaching, she could try to get a job in a traditional public school and earn more money. But she won’t think of it.
“To other teachers, I know my job is a dream,” Cavitt says. “They tell me that they don’t feel like they can teach because they have to deal with all these other things. I feel bad for them.”