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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 29 2013

Asking the Right Questions about Teacher Retention in Charter Schools

The New York Times has a story about the potentially deleterious effects of teacher turnover. Matt Yglesias, a fantastic blogger on economic issues and one of the best articulators of the pro-market progressive viewpoint, points out that we should really be asking how charter schools are able to produce comparable  results given their more inexperienced teachers, or in other words, how  the “experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.” I think this is a fair question, and as my past forays into the data in NYC show, charter schools do do a solid job of educating students that are largely (but not the most) high-need. There are probably some practices we can all learn from some of these schools. Many critics of reforms will spend their efforts resisting the assumption within this question, fighting to observe that these charter schools are actually doing a much worse job. I’m not convinced that this is a worthy fight, since even experiments designed around natural lotteries show at the very least that charter schools are not worse.

But that doesn’t mean I am 100% on board with a growing charter school sector (either in terms of # of schools or spread of curricula/best practices). I’m very concerned with what happens to the teaching profession, or the perceptions, training, work, and expectations of teachers, as these models proliferate and gain legitimacy? Here’s a few reasonable hypotheses.

- there will be an increasing perception that teaching is not a high-skill job, since it does not require extensive training or experience. I think if we managed to actually get the top 10% of graduating college students to become teachers this could be mitigated (think of consultants, who are well respected, highly paid, right out of college, trained on the job, and often leave after a few years), but I don’t think that is likely.

- there will be less investment in university training, and an increasing (but not commensurate) investment in institute-like and on-the-job training. I am a big believer in the value added of some of these alternative certification programs, but do think we can all agree that teaching, at it’s most effective, is job that requires some theoretical understandings of pedagogy and child development and an extensive knowledge base. These alternative programs will neither be equipped or incentivized to provide this.

- The actual work of teaching will change. I’m not talking about accountability here. I’m talking about the amount of prescription a teacher has to swim through on a daily basis. Management techniques, lesson delivery, classroom organization, are all things that are less and less up to professional discretion, especially in charter schools. Teachers become performers, rather than professionals. One counterargument is that there will be new professional hierarchies around training new teachers. This is certainly true, but anyone who studies or witnesses school organizational design can tell you that schools cannot exist essentially bifurcated between professional/autonomous “vets” (3-5 years) and prescribed novices. When schools hit a percentage of new or low-performing teachers, their response is to prescribe and centralize for everyone. All teachers I know at high performing charter schools admit this. They like how effective they are with this prescribed curriculum, but they realize they are replaceable cogs in a machine, and migrate to places where they feel more individually impactful.  PLEASE, give me some counter-examples. I wish there were.  What’s worse is that while Uncommon can prescribe practices for teachers in a way that is both effective and (relatively speaking) professionally respectful, when lesser charter schools try to import these ideas, they implement them in ways that are ineffective and professionally humiliating and outrageous.

Here’s an example of micromanagement by a principal of one a high performing charter school (from the New York Times article).

“Observing two first-year math teachers, she noticed that both were reviewing place values with sixth graders. “We might not be pushing them as rigorously as we can at this point,” she said. And when 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.””

Can you imagine the top 10% of our graduating college students being publicly instructed on how to give an arbitrary cheer in front of their students?  And again, this is one of the better charter schools. Think about the humiliation from the 80% who are hearing about these ideas and implementing them even more obtusely. And let’s not forget about the amount of hours that will be expected teachers work.

- The expectations of teachers will change. We will forget about the idea that teacher used to plan their own lessons, invent new activities, analyze their own data their own way, respond to particular students’ behaviors in ways that make sense for those students. Teaching will no longer be a highly personal, skilled, or professional activity. We will rely on the talents of organizational leaders and administrators. Now in the short run, this might increase test scores for students in the bottom tier schools. But does anyone really think this system is a better one for students than one populated by many highly professional, trained, and experienced teachers?

My fear can be articulated by the concept of path dependency. Decisions that on the margins seem rational (like spreading the practices successful charter schools) can over time lead to a highly sub-optimal outcome. We are stuck today with a keyboard actually designed to make us slower typers because that was necessarily decades ago to ensure that typewriters wouldn’t get jammed. Since nobody is willing to relearn a new keyboard layout, its unlikely a any designers of a more efficient layout will be successful.

But like switching keyboards, are we less likely to move to a higher plane of teaching and instruction as charter school practices become more ubiquitous? I actually am not sure. I’m reading the book The Smartest Kids in the World, which discusses how Finland was once fed up with its schools and essentially scripted out a national curriculum while closing down all but the top six training programs (and forced them to associate with top universities). It was only after these barbaric measures were in place that they began to loosen the regulations to allow for the current professional, decentralized, and autonomous teaching force that exists today. Anyways, I think that’s probably the most interesting question to ponder if you are thinking about the long-term impact of charter schools.

11 Responses

  1. You make some interesting points, though I worry it might suffer some from a bias in favor of the status quo.

    It’s not obvious to me that education couldn’t benefit from serious disruption. One could imagine a model in which new teachers are given highly structured instruction, and one of the benefits of staying on could be greater freedom. This would guarantee that experienced teachers would suffer less from the humiliation of micromanagement, but students would suffer less from the floundering of new teachers. Perhaps under such a system, we would fear turnover less. This especially true if highly talented people could be incentivized to spend even only two years at a school.

    Obviously, you would need data to suggest this was a preferable system. But it’s not obvious to me that the status quo is superior. Yglesias’ point is that the high turnover, in the case of charter schools, is significantly less devastating than we would have thought.

    • yoteach

      Sure. But what I’m wary of is saying since the status quo sucks, any kind of disruption is good.
      That’s why, I believe, the question of path dependency is so important. If we can recognize that a scripted teaching force is perhaps better than the status quo for the bottom 10% of schools or teachers right now, but certainly worse if implemented universally in all schools or even all low-income schools, then we should be focusing on the question of whether such a state would facilitative of more optimal teaching institutions. I admit that I’m not sure of the answer.

      The problem is, policies that are built around helping the most underperforming schools/teachers are spreading to more successful organizations through a process of state/federal codification, curricular/improvement companies, and the interaction of the two. I’ll be more amenable to this inevitable costs if I can see how it would lower the transition costs to a more professionalized teaching force. But my main point is that these are the issues we should be considering.

      On a side note, I don’t think you’ve adequately dealt with my argument that this outcome will probably not incentivize the best college grads to spend two years teaching, and while the organization you describe sounds nice, I find the lack of empirical or even anecdotal evidence of such schools telling.

  2. Cody

    What is the lack of evidence telling of? That it’s a bad idea, unworkable, or just that it hasn’t been tried? It is, at best, an attempt at blending features of different models that appear to be successful. (This is question is not for rhetorical purposes, it really is a point of inquiry.)

    As for incentivizing talented people to teach, you’re right that I didn’t challenge your take that it would be difficult to do. I imagine there likely are ways to make progress on this front (and perhaps I’m just hopeful that the example of micromanagement you cite about the cheer won’t become the norm). Regardless, I mostly meant to suggest that it’s worth considering how we could use a higher turnover rate advantageously.

    The other points are well-made, I’ll give it some thought.

    • yoteach

      Well it’s certainly a good idea in theory, and pretty intuitive for any educational leader dealing with retention issues. But the lack of examples in practice suggest that there is something organizationally difficult about implementing such a system effectively.

      And you’re right about the potential benefit of a model that attracts high skill people for a few years. I am worried that because of the high number of mediocre school organizations, attempts to prescribe will usually drive away even young talent.

  3. Justice

    All TFA is a bunch of self-promoters helping the corporate wealthy cut labor costs by undermining teacher unions. Period. Please stop exploiting our kids.

  4. My opinion is that cookie-cutter programs that treat students, faculty and staff like cogs are only successful if you define successful as “sucking less than REALLY terrible schools do.” Yeah, you’re not gonna get food poisoning at McDonalds, but you’re not gonna get much in the way of nutrition, either.

    They may have some utility as a stopgap but they’re not a sustainable solution if one honestly wants low-SES students to have access to a similar quality of education as their middle-class and higher peers.

  5. Meghank

    One reason I’m glad I was taught by experienced, tenured, professional teachers, and was never taught by a TFAer: I was taught the difference between its and it’s.

    • yoteach

      It’s a tradeoff between perfection and opportunity cost. But I wish you would engage with my actual ideas instead of just careless mistakes. If you don’t like what I’ve said tell me why.

      • yoteach

        Also, I promise you, THAT is something a TFAer is certainly equipped to teach. Myself, you may be surprised, included. It’s the deeper, more meaningful, complex skills we have trouble with.

        • Meghank

          I’m sorry, that was nitpicky of me. After all, Gary makes the same mistake.

          But, actually, I don’t think a TFAer can teach this the way I was taught it. One day my English teacher, who had been teaching for 20-some-odd years (and is now a principal at a private school) taught us this lesson about its and it’s (also, your, you’re, hers, her’s, and some other common mistakes). She said that she had learned in her decades of teaching that the time to learn this information is in the eighth grade, and it was essential to her that no student she ever taught left the eighth grade without grasping the difference in these grammatical concepts. It truly was important to her.

          We certainly wouldn’t have listened to her if she hadn’t been so dedicated to teaching as a profession, and so experienced.

          As silly as it sounds, this lesson, and the views she communicated in it about her life’s work, really stuck with me, and while I have made the mistake carelessly before, it always does bother me when others do it (including Gary).

  6. Emmanuel Parello

    Nice commentary. I worry about the long term effects of such an unstable environment, where teachers are constantly leaving after staying for only a few years, even if those schools are temporarily able to create some test score boosts. In the letters section of the NYT yesterday, one former charter school teacher talked about how kids were crying every year as their favorite teachers left.

    I think that what children in low-income areas really need are stable school communities, and where there are genuine human interactions happening in the classroom between students and teachers who stay for a while. Children are aware of what’s happening when their teachers keep moving on to “bigger and better things,” as one teacher says in the article.

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