Sunday, August 14, 2011

Are charter schools sweat shops?

A recent Stanford University study reveals that charter school teachers have a higher turnover rate than traditional public school teachers. Elementary teacher turnover is 33% higher than turnover at public schools and close to four times higher at the secondary level. The report indicates that younger unmarried teachers without children who work at charter schools are "better able to handle the intense teaching demands more than those with family responsibilities." Do charter schools pay attention to teacher burn-out?

Steven Brill's recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Super Teachers Alone Can't Save Our Schools does not look at working conditions deeply enough although he exposes the views of two charter "super teachers."

"I feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and underpaid," a teacher told me one morning at one of the Success Charter Network schools in Harlem. Like KIPP, these are schools whose students consistently top the charts in achievement scores, often testing at or above the level of students in affluent nearby suburbs.

"I work from 7:30 to 5:30 in the building and then go home and work some more," the teacher told me. "I get disrespectful pushback from parents all the time when I try to give their kids consequences. I get feedback from my [supervisors], who demand that I change five or six things by the next day. I think we are doing a great job, so I keep at it. But there is no way I can do this beyond another year or two."

Brill interviewed Success Charter Network school founder, Eva Moskowitz, who advocates scaling "this", without elaborating what "this" is. Moskowitz discusses turnover this way:
"Sure, we have turnover, but our teachers make good money," and "they can advance quickly."

"I have [assistant principals] who are 28 years old and making $100,000 or $120,000, who get six weeks' vacation," Ms. Moskowitz said. "How bad a career path is that?"

How bad a career path is it? Great question. Successful businesses across the nation recognize the importance of working conditions on motivation, productivity, and retention.

Brill reported that Success Charter Network lost one of those super-teacher turned assistant principals because the demands created an "unsustainable" life, both on her health and her marriage. At 28, she walked away to save herself.

KIPP Charter School co-founder Dave Levin believes reform requires ending teacher unions in order to increase the number of "super teachers":
".....if you tore up every union contract in the country, that would just give you the freedom to try…. Then you would have to train and motivate not 70,000 or 80,000 teachers"—the number now teaching in charter schools—"but three million," the approximate number of teachers in American public elementary and secondary schools.

As Mr. Levin explained to me, "You can't do this by depending only on the kinds of exceptional people we have around here who pour themselves into this every hour of every day."

"Every hour of the day????"

Somehow Levin and Moskowitz miss the important and widespread best practices from the business world that acknowledge it takes more than money and 6-weeks vacation to retain talented employees. These charter school leaders express no vision on a teaching environment that retains talent and seem almost cavalier at the level of turnover. There are cost implications when investing in training and losing the talent. So, why are charter schools that have higher turnover rates than public schools and operate like sweat shops considered exemplars for replication at "scale?"

The nation cannot afford 3 million teachers trained and burning out in two years. Taxpayers should not be called upon to fund such a model. Where's the accountability to students, parents, community members, and taxpayers?

UPDATE: The 28 year old assistant principal who left the charter school position found a position in a traditional school, which she found to be more sustainable. Found this detail on Alexander Russo's blog. He says he will be posting an interview he had with Mr. Brill in the next issue of Scholastic Administrator.


  1. My daughter once signed up to work at a charter school. Classes weren't assigned until the day before school started. She had 6 separate preparations in 3 grade levels. She lasted one week.

  2. @Bud - I hope your daughter found a school with decent working conditions that free her to teach effectively.

    With the unrealistic demands you describe, it should not at all be a surprise that 15 out of 31 failing grades went to Florida charter schools. Charter schools run lean and mean, reduced staff taking on more work, leads to early teacher burn out, loss of talent, and the kids lose a rich, meaningful educational experience.,0,4470007.story

  3. Don't listen to the complainers. I work for an NYC charter school and I LOVE the work, and I'm not the only one. Every time a child steps into my classroom, learns something new, talks to me about college or simple smiles at me I'm reminded why I work my tush off. We all are. We may have a CEO that requires us to work crazy hours, but we don't do it for her. We do it for those kids. And we are happy to do it!

  4. To Anonymous: I am glad that you are having a positive experience in a NYC charter school and don't mind working your "tush off." Unfortunately, Mr. Brill did not interview a single teacher who expressed the views you have.

    Nevertheless, the research is clear that there is a retention problem with charter school teachers due to burn out. As a taxpayer and an employee in private industry (non-educator), there is an economic reality to high turnover and that fact that should not be ignored or trivialized.

  5. Love this article and I too work at a charter school. I worked three years and was BURNED out. The only reason I am back a year later is because I could not find work in a real public school. We have unbelievable turnover at our school. One year we lost 21 teachers which is 3/4 of our staff. Why the heac would any taxpayer advocate this. Yeah I enjoy teaching but my work conditions are NOT sustainable. I would be a happier and better teacher at the end of the day if I had more than 25 minutes to eat my lunch and was home by 4:00. Oh yes charter schools are for the kids, yea right, but really if you want to know the truth they are about people making money and creating jobs for themselves. Teachers are replaceable and that's their philosophy. It's all about the MONEY.

  6. I am a teacher at a charter school in Chicago. I imagine we do put in a lot more work than typical public schools. Clocking less than 50 hours a week is very difficult. We also do get paid less than public schools. We do, however, have a safe and positive working environment. I've been doing it for almost a decade because I love the students and I know I am making a huge difference. Although we deal primarily with students that get kicked out/dropped out of Chicago Public Schools we rarely lose teachers. For six years we only lost one teacher who was not performing as she should have. No one else quit or was fired during that time. Lets not pretend all public schools or all charter schools have the answers. Lets not bash all charter schools or all public schools. Instead we need to creatively and effectively approach the dilemma of education now. This requires reform and it requires hard work.

  7. To Anonymous on Sept. 13 @ 9:21 am.
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments:
    "Let's not pretend all public schools or all charter schools have the answers. Let's not bash all charter schools or all public schools. Instead we need to creatively and effectively approach the dilemma of education now."

    Allow me to add that educators, parents, community members must be included in decision-making and that does take hard work. As long as education policy makers, foundations, politicians, and legislators force communities to comply with experimental, expensive, and controversial reforms, we will remain stuck.

  8. I work for a charter school. Where I work, teachers do not have lunches. They have lunch duty. It has been made clear that they are not allowed to sit down and eat. They are to monitor the children. We have to punch in and out like McDonalds workers. We are paid much less than public school employees. Some teachers who have made it out have said that the public schools in the surrouding areas do not even count years worked at a charter school as experience as the years spent there are not valued. The turnover rate is high. You can be fired if the principal doesn't like you. You must work late on a moments notice. You are not appreciated. There have been no raises in the past 5 years. Supplies are so low that when they pass out paper clips and pencils, they actually give you a handful, not a box. Most teachers that are hired who have had public school jobs do not last. The majority don't make it through the year. We have no retirement, no tenure, and no job security. There is not air conditioning. People are afraid to complain because if they do they could be let go. It is a disgrace.