Should the High Teacher Turnover Rate in Charter Schools Be a Cause for Concern?

By Elaine Magliaro

(NOTE: This article was originally posted at Res Ipsa Loquitor on September 7, 2013)

In a recent New York Times article titled At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice, Mitoko Rich wrote of how charter schools seem to be developing something of a “youth cult” in their teaching ranks. She reported that in the charter network “teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.”

Teachers in the thirteen YES Prep Schools, which are located throughout Greater Houston, have a reported average of two and a half years of experience. The teachers who work for Achievement First—which has 25 schools in Connecticut, Brooklyn, and Providence, R.I.— “spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom.” And the individuals who teach in the KIPP schools and the Success Academy Charter Schools stay in the classroom for an average of four years. This youth culture—or culture in which most classroom practitioners have little teaching experience— differs from that of our country’s traditional public schools where teachers average nearly fourteen years of experience…and where public school leaders have made it “a priority to reduce teacher turnover.”

In the NYT article, Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep, was quoted as saying, “We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.” (Note: New teachers at the YES Prep schools receive just two and a half weeks of training over the summer before arriving in the classroom.)

Rich says it was Teach for America (TFA) that was mostly responsible for introducing the idea of a “foreshortened teaching career.” TFA is an organization that recruits “high-achieving” college graduates and places them in some of our neediest schools. In a piece for Policymic, Benjamin Cosman wrote about TFA recruits. He said that after just five weeks of training, “Teach for America participants lead a classroom for two years, slap it on their resume, and leave the school with a bevy of opportunities.”

Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, contends that “strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers. The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.” (Question for Wendy Kopp: Are you sending your teaching recruits into the “strongest” schools?)

Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and a man who once viewed Teach for America as a positive program, has a difference of opinion regarding teacher turnover. He has been disappointed that TFA doesn’t instill a commitment to teaching in its program participants. In fact, Naison no longer allows TFA to recruit his college students.

Naison said the following about Kopp’s organization:

Until Teach For America becomes committed to training lifetime educators and raises the length of service to five years rather than two, I will not allow TFA to recruit in my classes. The idea of sending talented students into schools in impoverished areas, and then after two years encouraging them to pursue careers in finance, law, and business in the hope that they will then advocate for educational equity really rubs me the wrong way.

He added:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach For America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially conscious person can make. Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Several years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.” The message of that flyer was: “use teaching in high-poverty areas as a stepping stone to a career in business.” It was not only disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it effectively advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

After reading Rich’s article about the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools, Catherine M. Ionata responded in a letter to the editor. She wrote:

The charter school representatives in your article defend the rapid turnover of teachers. Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, even says that teachers can become great in one or two years! Would we expand this idea to other professions? Do we think the best lawyers are those fresh out of law school? Should we choose a rookie physician for complex surgery, because this surgeon is more “enthusiastic” than veteran surgeons?

Ronald Thorpe, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said, “To become a master plumber you have to work for five years. Shouldn’t we have some kind of analog to that with the people we are entrusting our children to?”

Education expert Diane Ravitch also weighed in on the subject after reading Rich’s article:

Can you imagine that a “teacher” who graduated college in June is already “a great teacher” by September?

Why do we expect entrants to every other profession to spend years honing their craft but a brand-new teacher, with no experience, can be considered “great” in only one or two years, then leave to do something else?

This is a recipe to destroy the teaching profession.

How can anyone say they are education “reformers” if their goal is to destroy the profession?

What other nation is doing this?

This is not innovative. In fact, it returns us to the early nineteenth century, when the general belief was that “anyone can teach, no training needed.” Teaching then was a job for itinerants, widow ladies, young girls without a high school degree, and anyone who couldn’t do anything else. It took over a century to create a teaching profession, with qualifications and credentials needed before one could be certified to stand in front of a classroom of young children. We are rapidly going backwards.

Henry Seton, a humanities teacher at Community Charter School of Cambridge in Massachusetts, was another educator who responded to Rich’s article. He wrote:

The high teacher turnover at charter schools leaves these institutions fragile and ill equipped to support their most vulnerable students. It takes far more than a year or two in the classroom to develop that elusive set of skills needed to serve our nation’s neediest cohorts of students — young men of color, English language learners and so on. And I have seen some of the most well-regarded charters here in Massachusetts left reeling and in danger of closing after extensive teacher departures.

Benjamin Cosman (Policymic) wrote that young teachers in charter schools “are supposed to save education in the United States.” He thinks, however, that there is a “very real danger in valuing inexperience in the teaching field…” He believes this “supposed remedy” may possibly be hastening the “demise of public education.”

In his article titled It’s Harder for Charter Schools to Keep Teachers, Francisco Vara-Orta wrote about information provided in data collected by the Texas Education Agency. The data, taken from 47 local school districts from 2006 to 2011, showed that the “average teacher turnover rate for charter school districts was 46 percent, compared with 13 percent for traditional school districts.” Vara-Orta wrote that analysis of the data showed that teachers leave charter schools in Bexar County nearly three times more often than teachers in traditional public schools, “which generally pay more and perform better academically.” He continued, “Of the 10 districts rated academically unacceptable by the state in Bexar County last year, all were charters, with turnover ranging from 38 percent to 65 percent…”

Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that the teacher turnover rate in charter schools was nearly twice as high as that of traditional public schools. In addition, the researchers found that teachers in charter schools were also more likely to leave the profession.

Excerpt from the Vanderbilt report titled Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools:

Our analysis confirms that much of the explanation of this “turnover gap” lies in the differences in the types of teachers that charter schools and traditional public schools hire. The data lend minimal support to the claim that turnover is higher in charter schools because they are leveraging their flexibility in personnel policies to get rid of underperforming teachers. Rather, we found most of the turnover in charter schools is voluntary and dysfunctional as compared to that of traditional public schools.

A second reason is that attrition is highest among teachers that are new to the profession. Past research found teachers make important gains in effectiveness in their first three years and smaller gains over the next few years (McCaffrey, Koretz, Lockwood, and Hamilton, 2003; Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2005). Given that almost 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003), many teachers are leaving the classroom before they have developed into optimally effective practitioners. Moreover, exiting new teachers are often replaced by similarly inexperienced teachers and consequently students in schools with high turnover may rarely be exposed to experienced teachers.

Third, turnover affects many of the organizational conditions important to effective schooling, such as instructional cohesion and staff trust. Effective schools hold shared beliefs in similar instructional goals and practices (Fuller & Izu, 1986; Bryk & Driscoll, 1988). Schools with high turnover are challenged to develop a shared commitment towards the same goals, pedagogy, and curriculum. The constant churning of teaching staff makes it difficult to collaborate, develop standard norms of practice, and maintain progress towards common goals. This can lead to fragmented instructional programs and professional development plans that must be adapted each year to meet the needs of a teaching staff in constant flux (Guin, 2004). High turnover also makes it difficult for teachers to build relational trust, which is critical towards productive collaboration in schools (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Guin, 2004).

Critics of charter schools argue that students and schools need stability. “When you stay in a school or community, you build relationships,” said Andrea Giunta, a senior policy analyst for teacher recruitment, retention and diversity at the National Education Association.

As might be expected, studies have shown that teacher turnover often “diminishes student achievement” and has a negative impact on “the overall school environment because it creates instability and a loss of institutional knowledge.”

Matthew Ronfeldt, an assistant professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan—along with colleagues Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff—conducted a study on teacher turnover. Their report was titled How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement. Loeb, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said that the problem of teacher turnover had been well-documented. She noted, “One in three teachers leaves the profession within five years.” In their study, the three researchers sought to find out if students “do worse in the year after there is high turnover.” They discovered that high teacher turnover hurt student achievement in English and math—and that the negative impact was as “significant as the effect of free lunch eligibility (a standard measure of poverty) on test scores.” They also found the negative impact to be strongest “among schools with more low-performing and black students. “

In a Texas Tribune article dated January 27, 2010, Brian Temple wrote that at some charter schools in the state “it’s the teachers who can’t wait to clear out at the end of the school year.”

Temple reported that according to data that had been released at the time, 79 percent of the faculty of Accelerated Intermediate Academy in Houston turned over before the 2008-09 school year. At Peak Preparatory in Dallas, 71 percent of teachers did not return…and at Harmony Science Academy in College Station, “69 percent of teachers split.”

Temple continued:

In all, more than 40 of nearly 200 charter operators the state tracked — some which oversee multiple schools — had to replace more than half their teaching staffs before the last school year. Even more established and successful operators, including KIPP and YES Prep in Houston, lose nearly a third of their teachers annually. In contrast, just six of more than 1,000 non-charter school districts statewide had more than half their teachers leave, and none of the 20 largest school districts had a turnover rate higher than 16 percent.

The financial cost of teacher turnover is high. According to a study conducted by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, teacher attrition costs approximately $7.3 billion per year. Since teacher attrition is so costly and has been shown to have a negative effect on student performance, Benjamin Cosman wonders why TFA and charter organizations like the Yes Prep schools encourage teachers to have a “get out while you can” mentality.

Cosman argued:

We should be cultivating teachers who are in it for the long haul, who build steady careers based on longevity, who become the wizened old stalwarts who’ve been around the block a few times. Yes, there are problems with tenure and bad teachers sticking around too long, and those issues need to be addressed. But the exact opposite — getting teachers in and out as fast as we can — is certainly not the solution.

Excerpt from Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States, an issue brief released by the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) in August 2005:

There is a growing consensus among researchers and educators that the single most important factor in determining student performance is the quality of his or her teachers. Therefore, if the national goal of providing an equitable education to children across the nation is to be met, it is critical that efforts be concentrated on developing and retaining high-quality teachers in every community and at every grade level…

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 1999–2000 “Public School Teacher Survey,” 47 percent of public school teachers worked with a mentor teacher in the same subject area.12 Sixty-six percent of teachers who were formally mentored by another teacher reported that it “improved their classroom teaching a lot.”13

Mentors are an important factor in providing support for new teachers as they enter the real world of the classroom, but mentoring alone is not enough. Comprehensive induction proves most effective at keeping good teachers in the classroom. Studies demonstrate that new teacher turnover rates can be cut in half through comprehensive induction—a combination of high-quality mentoring, professional development and support, scheduled interaction with other teachers in the school and in the larger community, and formal assessments for new teachers during at least their first two years of teaching.14

I can speak from experience. Mentor teachers can prove invaluable in helping young and inexperienced teachers by providing them with advice, insight, educational ideas and materials that have proved successful in the classroom, and by being a sounding board for them when they feel a need to express their frustrations, insecurities, and fears. Experienced teachers helped me when I was a teaching “ingénue.” Later, when I was a seasoned professional, I helped guide and advise young teachers. I shared books and teaching materials with them. I also listened to their new ideas. Other experienced educators at my school and I found that mentoring new teachers helped us to bond with them and to become a close-knit educational community.

Older teachers provide wisdom. Young teachers bring in a “breath of fresh air.” I think the healthiest school communities have teachers with different perspectives and levels of classroom experience—new teachers, teachers in mid career, and the old sages who have been around the block more than a few times.

One has to wonder how difficult it must be for young and inexperienced teachers to find mentors in their schools if most of the classroom practitioners have little more experience than they. One has to wonder how schools where teachers stay for just two or three years can develop their own culture and institutional memory—as well as a sense of stability and community. One has to wonder how children feel when their teachers come and go so frequently and rarely show evidence of a commitment to their schools and the student population.

It saddens me to think that there are “school reformers” in our country who encourage “foreshortened careers” in education…who think that youth trumps experience…who don’t instill a commitment to education in the young people they recruit for their teaching programs.


At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (New York Times)

The High Turnover at Charter Schools (New York Times)

Charter schools are developing teachers with short tenure (Examiner)

Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools (CRPE–Center on Reinventing Public Education)

High teacher turnover in charters: Does student achievement suffer? (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A Revolving Door (Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff)

Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools (Vanderbilt University)

It’s harder for charter schools to keep teachers (My San Antonio)

Teacher Attrition in Charter Schools 2007 (NEPC–National Education Policy Center)

Professor: Why Teach For America can’t recruit in my classroom (Washington Post)

Teacher Turnover Negatively Impacts Student Achievement in Math and English (The Journal)

Teacher turnover harms student learning (University of Michigan)

Teacher turnover affects all students’ achievement, study indicates (Stanford University)

Churn, Churn, Churn, Is Not Good for Kids or the Teaching Profession (Diane Ravitch)

High turnover reported among charter school teachers: With so many charter school teachers moving on each year, concerns arise about retaining quality educators and how stability affects student performance. (Los Angeles Times)

LA students more true to their charter schools than teachers, studies say (UC Berkeley)

Charter Schools Battle High Teacher Turnover (Texas Tribune)

Teach For America: Let’s Stop Encouraging Teachers to Leave After Two Years, Maybe? (Policymic)

Guest Post: Teacher turnover – who stays and who leaves (Stanford University)

High Teacher Turnover Rates are a Big Problem for America’s Public Schools (Forbes)

Teacher Attrition: A Costly Loss to the Nation and to the States (NCTAF-National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future)

NCTAF Study: Teacher Attrition Costs U.S. Over $7 Billion Annually (American Association of Colleges for Teacher education)

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5 Responses to Should the High Teacher Turnover Rate in Charter Schools Be a Cause for Concern?

  1. Education is just a big commodity to Wall Street which finds it especially lucrative to prey on the poor who have few options. Take a bunch of poor kids and educate them on the cheap to make big bucks. They operate it like a giant fast food restaurant…hire poorly paid young people to pass out the educational “fries.” Just train them a few weeks like McDonald’s hamburger university to train workers…Churn is good for business…bring em in…work them to exhaustion and then out the door. The whole purpose of this charade is PROFIT.

  2. buckaroo says:

    There are many valid criticisms of Teach For America, but the teacher retention quandary both predates and extends beyond TFA. We would be much better served if we focused on why teaching does such a fantastic job of pushing its young, motivated talent toward other fields, especially in high-needs districts.

    Maybe it’s the numerous uncompensated work hours ( ), the school culture vacuum that results from continuous administrative turnover, the tail-wagging-the-dog situation that arises from high-stakes testing, or the pressure of the sad fact that public/charter schools are one of the only institutions left in high-poverty areas to develop human capital. Or would we rather just have TFA and charters as scapegoats? Long-term, the biggest drains on talent often come from the salary penalty of teaching in underresourced schools- teachers move up to administration, out to affluent districts, or leave altogether. Salary parity would go a long way toward retention. It’s impossible to talk about the modern new teacher experience (TFA or no) without discussing burnout.
    — Jonathan Karp

  3. bettykath says:

    I agree with Mary. Cookie cutter mentality. It’s all about profit,

    My niece is a relatively new teacher who has seriously considered leaving the profession. Zero tolerance policies, i.e., adherence to rules that make the rules more important than the students, long hours outside of class preparing lesson plans or correcting papers rather than open time during school hours. After some jocks threw bags of cum at some teachers, including her, she switched schools. Things are a bit better now but she still doesn’t have weekends to call her own.

  4. Mike Spindell says:

    “The whole purpose of this charade is PROFIT.”

    Mary has it right. The old Watergate maxim applies: “follow the money”.

  5. Pingback: What’s Going on in Public Education: A Brief History of the “Testocracy,” Standardized Testing and Test-Defying | Flowers For Socrates

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