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Connectedness to the learning community, excitement about what each new school day can bring, positive relationships with role models, consistent performance, a commitment to come back next year… these are some of the outcomes independent charter schools hope to elicit for kids in their schools. With a rate of 25% teacher turnover (compared to 14% at public schools) in one study, charter school leaders must also think about how to bring about those sorts of outcomes for their teachers. While schools’ charters often give administrators the flexibility to ensure that the teachers they employ have the right skills and the right “fit” with a school, the majority of turnover can still be attributed to voluntary choice by the teachers.

Beyond the obvious costs of frequently searching for, hiring, and orienting new teachers to charter schools, teacher attrition has other costs that are harder to quantify.  David Stuit and Thomas M. Smith at Vanderbilt University (2009) recap the findings of several researchers who find that teachers with the strongest academic achievement themselves are the ones most likely to leave charter schools (and the teaching profession altogether) — a move that pulls some of the most qualified teachers out of charter schools. Perhaps just as costly, when teachers don’t return, the critical network of adults at any given charter school who know the children well and are invested in their success as they grow erodes.

Causes for Teacher Attrition
Discovering the reasons why good teachers leave is essential to knowing what leaders of independent charter schools can do to keep them.  Research on the subject is readily available. It is worth noting, however, that the examination of teacher attrition in charter schools is often connected to other political or ideological ‘baggage.” Charter school leaders must understand that teacher retention is, to a large degree, linked to other sensitive issues like
unionization of charter school teachers and comparative assessments of student achievement between independent charter schools, managed multi-site charters, and public schools.

Several studies point to the relatively young age of charter school teachers (compared to public school teachers) as the strongest predictor of turnover, as it is with teachers in any setting. Other factors correlated with teacher attrition in charter schools include: low number of years at the school, non-certified teachers or teachers teaching outside their certification areas, and “teachers’ relative satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the school’s: 1) mission, 2) perceived ability to attain the mission, and 3) administration and governance” (Miron and Applegate; Western Michigan University, 2007).)  One study of teacher attrition in charter schools in Wisconsin that controls for many of these factors concludes that “high turnover rates in Wisconsin charter schools appear to be a disadvantaged school problem rather than a charter school problem per se”– pointing perhaps to increased needs for more wraparound services for students and families, as well as teacher support and training in cultural competence.

Others posit that teachers are less likely to want to stay in charter schools where they tend to be paid less than in public schools and are more likely to be without union protection. In fact, the Century Foundation suggests that 90% of charter schools are non-unionized environments, and many teachers cite job security and protection of wages and benefits as primary factors as they select jobs.

What Indie Charter School Leaders Can Do to Keep Good Teachers

  • Maximize wages and benefits to attract qualified teachers as you develop your school budget. Look at what district teachers and other charter school teachers are being paid in your region, and ensure your salary and benefits packages are competitive. Within the range of salaries you can offer, ideally you should be able to hire a mix of seasoned and new teachers. Low-balling salaries makes it far more likely that your school would not be the employer of choice for qualified candidates and it reduces the number of experienced teachers in a school who can serve as mentors for younger teachers. Using the Cost Estimation Tool and Revenue Planning Tools developed by the National Resource Center on Charter Schools can help you realistically estimate costs and plan for ways to beef up your funding. 
  • Give teachers a voice in developing school policies and curricula. For many charter school teachers, the autonomy and opportunity to be creative in their work is what draws them to their jobs in the first place!  So, ask teachers about the ways they would like to be involved in decision making. Solicit their input frequently and openly as you make decisions. Consider using an outside facilitator to help you get their input for very critical decisions. Let teachers know you value their input and how you plan to use it; if you ultimately make a decision that contradicts their input, let them know in a respectful way why you decided that way. Ensure that teachers’ voices are directly and regularly heard by your governance body.
  • Make teacher buy-in and integral aspect of the mission of your school and give teachers the support they need to execute that mission. Find interesting and innovative ways to connect meetings and professional development opportunities to the school’s mission in order to keep teachers excited about what you’re accomplishing together. Resist the urge to do most of the talking when you convene staff. Build a strengths-based and transparent system to support teachers who need help. Visit classrooms often. Recognize teachers who are executing the mission in creative, effective and fun ways.
  •  Leverage available supports for high-need or vulnerable students and their families. Teachers in charter schools often put in longer hours for less pay than their district counterparts.  Their jobs can be overwhelming — especially for young and inexperienced teachers. Rarely are teachers also trained social workers. So, ensure that your school offers adequate resources to meet the needs of English language learners and special education students. If there are other basic unmet needs for students and families, such as health and mental health care, child care, food supports, or housing, look for community nonprofits or community action agency partners who can help meet these needs. In some cases, the school itself can access federal, state or local funds to meet these needs. Check out issue-specific funding guides, like LEARNING TO READ: A Guide to Federal Funding for Grade-Level Reading Proficiency, for ideas on how to bring in resources for students and families with specific needs.

Human resource management may or may not be your leadership strong suit. But knowledge of the research that exists on teacher attrition in charter schools along with careful planning to avoid it can help keep great teachers at your school, enrich your organizational culture, and ensure that students at your charter school benefit from having the best available teachers in their classrooms.  


The views expressed in Charter Notebook blogs represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association or the U.S. Department of Education.

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