Charter school teachers quick to change careers
August 27, 2013 10:40 AM

HOUSTON — Tyler Dowdy just started his third year of teaching at YES Prep West, a charter school here. He figures now is a good time to explore his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.

Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28. Across YES Prep’s 13 schools, teachers have an average of 2ᄑ years of experience.

As tens of millions of pupils across the country begin their school year, charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.

Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools have an average of close to 14 years of experience, and public school leaders and policymakers have long made it a priority to reduce teacher turnover.

But with teachers confronting the overhaul of evaluations and tenure as well as looming changes in pension benefits, the small but rapidly growing charter school movement — with schools that are publicly financed but privately operated — is pushing to redefine the arc of a teaching career.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven workforce who are now wondering, ‘OK, I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep. “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.”

The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools.

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement. Advocates who argue that teaching should become more like medicine or law say that while programs like Teach for America fill a need in the short term, educational leaders should be focused on improving training and working environments so that teachers will invest in long careers.

“My take is yes, we do need and want some number of teachers to be ‘lifers,’ for lack of a better word,” said Doug McCurry, a co-chief executive of Achievement First, a nonprofit charter operator with 25 schools in Connecticut, New York and Providence, R.I., where teachers spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom. But, he said, he would be happy if “the majority of the teachers that walked in the door gave us five or seven really good teaching years and then went on to do something else.”

Other charter networks have similar career arcs for teachers. At Success Academy Charter Schools, a chain run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, the average is about four years in the classroom. KIPP, one of the country’s best known and largest charter operators, with 141 schools in 20 states, also keeps teachers in classrooms for an average of about four years.

Charter leaders say they are able to sustain rapid turnover in teaching staff because they prepare young recruits and coach them as they progress. At YES Prep, new teachers go through 2ᄑ weeks of training over the summer, learning common disciplinary methods and working with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.

Novice teachers receive constant feedback from principals and other campus administrators. On a recent morning, Melanie Singleton, 27, a principal at YES Prep Hoffman, which opened in Houston this month with five of its nine teachers in their first year on the job, circulated through classrooms.

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.

Given the increase in applicants who do not plan to spend their lives teaching, even some traditional school districts are beginning to reward teachers with shorter career trajectories. In Washington, for example, Kaya Henderson, the public schools chancellor, said high-performing teachers could be paid $80,000 by their third year of teaching. (Starting salaries in the district are $42,000.)

Charter school leaders say similar pay structures could actually persuade their best teachers to stay longer, given that some teachers leave after just a few years because the pay is so low.

YES Prep’s performance pay system, introduced last year, is part of what persuaded Craig Brandenburg, a rare long-timer with 13 years of experience, to stay on as a math teacher.

“I wanted to feel like I was moving up,” said Brandenburg, a practically ancient 36.

Dowdy, who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more, however. “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

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