Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 01 2013

On Charter Churn, Stable School Communities, and Resume Boosts

I’ve never put too much stock in the idea that TFA recruits and young charter school teachers enter education for the resume padding; I think the job simply requires too much commitment and passion for a resume boost to be the primary motivator.  Everyone that I know who went into TFA or who worked for a charter school (very often the same people) did it because they cared very deeply about helping children succeed.  I’ve never met a single one who didn’t.

Nevertheless, it is a fact of the current job market that having TFA on your resume looks great, as does having experience at one of the major networks of “no-excuses” charters (KIPP, Uncommon, Achievement First, etc.).  Like it or not, experience with TFA or a no-excuses charter provides enormous social capital to young professionals working their way up in the world, while a decade or more working in district public schools with a traditionally acquired credential doesn’t.  Maybe it has to do with the networks that their recruiters tap into and maybe it has to do with media coverage- TFA and no-excuses charters typically recruit from top universities, and media coverage tends to portray them as innovative change makers, a combination that makes them an excellent fit for a myriad number of other professions that seek energetic and creative employees with experience in intense working environments.  Simply put, although nearly nobody enters these organizations for the resume boost, their ability to serve as a stepping stone quickly becomes unavoidable.

As the New York Times recently reported, and as two other Teachforus bloggers have commented on before me, charter schools are increasingly moving towards a model where two to five years of teaching is the norm, and that in turn is changing the education profession.  As more and more districts embrace charters, the education of low-income students is increasingly moving towards a model where bright and energetic young people jump start their careers in an all consuming professional environment, create some measurable test score gains, burn out, and then leverage those gains to move on to higher paying careers.  Those among them with the most dexterity and endurance might become principals at the age of 27 and open their own charters to perpetuate the model.

Is this a bad thing?  Although placing untrained TFA teachers in district public schools is often harmful in my view, many of the charter networks have systems in place for grooming and preparing first year teachers so that they will not screw up too badly in year one and can give a couple years of strong teaching after that.  If they are helping increase students’ academic performance in the meantime, where is the harm?

I believe that one of the most important things that a school that serves low-income children can do is to create an oasis of stability for them.  A school in which teachers are leaving every few years does the opposite of that.  In the follow up letters in the Times, a former charter school teacher writes that she saw kids crying every year over their favorite teachers leaving and that the high churn left students feeling constantly “misunderstood and undervalued.”   Additionally, many of the skills of teaching are developed over many years, and with a constant revolving door of new teachers working in their schools, charters will increasingly rely on scripted methods of teaching for their teachers. (Fellow Teachforus blogger Yoteach makes a similar argument here).    Although I once liked the book “Teach Like a Champion” by Uncommon’s Doug Lemov, many of its techniques can become overly prescriptive and artificial in the hands of novices.

Kids growing up in poverty need to have stable school communities as a counterbalance to the many instabilities that poverty inflicts.  Although the test score gains that charter networks advertise could make it seem that vision is no longer necessary, the long term success of these charter networks in helping students to graduate from college is still inconclusive.  KIPP, for instance, only has about 30 percent of its alums graduating form college at this point.  Although KIPP certainly can’t be solely blamed for that, it’s too early to tell if the high turnover youth model is actually effective at improving the life prospects of its students.  In the meantime, the schools that are being held up as the model for education reform are making instability the norm.

I don’t think that the young people who begin teaching under this model are too much to blame for this state of affairs.  The model is one in which burnout is the accepted norm, but where a few years of experience can give great leverage for future careers.  To become a “lifer” in that environment would be almost self-sacrificial.  One of the teachers quoted in the Times article says, “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing, and always moving onto something bigger and better.”  Although TFA and charter networks have admirably succeeded in attracting intensely motivated people into teaching, they have inadvertently created a model where teaching as a stepping stone to bigger things is the most logical path to follow.  One of my greatest joys as a teenager was going back and visiting my favorite teachers from previous grades.  If the current model of education continues to grow, I fear that this is a joy that very few students will get to experience.

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