by David Safier
The NY Times has a good article about a phenomenon many of us have known about for years: the high teacher turnover rate at charter schools. The burnout rate is legendary. Teachers stick around two, three, maybe five years, then they're gone — and usually not to another school. Gone from the profession. And we're not just talking about low rent, fly-by-night charters here. The turnover rate is high at some of the most respected charters.
It's true, lots of teachers at traditional public schools leave after a few years. Teaching can be pretty miserable if you don't like what you're doing, and it's unbearable if students don't like what you're doing either. But most teachers stick around at least ten years, time enough to know what they're doing, or they stay until retirement. Not so at charters.
Why the high turnover rate? One reason is, charter school teachers are often worked like dogs. Many of them are required to spend long hours at school, often they're required to be available by email or phone until 9pm, and sometimes the school year is weeks longer. With no union protection, working conditions are what the school says they are. Young teachers can sustain that kind of frantic pace for few years, but eventually it wears them down. And if a teacher gets married and has kids, that kind of enforced devotion to the school can be impossible to maintain. Charter school teachers often say, "It's either the teaching or my husband/wife and my kids. I can't do both."
Another reason could be, there's less incentive to stay. Many charter teachers are underpaid, though at some charters, teachers earn as much or more than traditional public school teachers. But often the rest of the package is less attractive. And tenure is virtually nonexistent, meaning teachers know they could be let go in June without being given a reason. In fact, some charters make a rule of getting rid of teachers on a regular basis. Turnover is part of their educational strategy.
The big question is, what does this do to the children?
The jury is out on whether experienced teachers are intrinsically better than inexperienced ones. Some argue that the energy young teachers put into their teaching compensates for their lack of experience, especially when you factor in the few experienced teachers who have been around for awhile and are just putting in time. But I doubt they're talking about first and second year teachers being equivalent to teachers with ten or more years of experience. Those first two years are pretty rugged, as any teacher will tell you, and the students have to be missing something as the young teachers try to find their way. When most of the teachers at a school are in their twenties (and the principal isn't much older), they don't even have the old hands to go to for guidance.
Some charters use a regimented approach to make up for teachers' lack of experience. Teachers are taught techniques and gimmicks which are supposed to make them instant successes. There's a great passage in the article about a principal — who happens to be 27 herself — observing a class.
[W]hen one teacher exhorted her students to give themselves a celebratory chant, Ms. Singleton corrected the teacher’s instructions. “I have to interrupt,” Ms. Singleton said. “It’s two claps and then a sizzle.”
Teachers in situations like this are factory workers. Even when their students do reasonably well, the teachers are robbed of the spontaneity, the creativity, the personal touch that make teachers love their jobs. These teachers are assembly line workers, not professionals. They perform their teaching tasks the way they're told to perform them, robotically, without variation. No wonder so many of them grow tired and frustrated. They're intelligent, creative young people who chose to go into a very human profession, they're working hard, but they're not allowed to commit themselves heart and soul to their students or to the art and soft science of teaching.
What does this mean for the future of education? It's probably music to the ears of the conservative "education reformers" who want to privatize, de-professionalize and de-unionize schools. With the increasing moves in states to take away teachers' tenure protections and replace pension plans with inadequate 401Ks — not to mention the dehumanizing emphasis on high stakes testing — it wouldn't surprise me to see more school districts filled with three-years-and-out teachers.