Friday, March 12, 2010

New Orleans charter schools work to sustain teachers' energy, results

A very interesting article from New Orleans about one of the biggest challenges facing high-performing schools: the long hours and other demands on teachers, which can lead to burnout and high turnover:

While Giesler praises Akili for its supportive work environment, she gives voice to a nagging concern of school reformers and charter leaders across the city and the country. How can a movement predicated in part on superhuman exertions of time and effort sustain itself and grow in the long term?

As Giesler puts it: "How good a school are you if you have really strong results, but can't take that model anywhere else because it was solely reliant on the bodies in the building, and kills people after two years?"

A growing number of schools, particularly charters, embrace a "no excuses" or "whatever it takes" attitude toward closing the achievement gap between poor, minority students and their wealthier peers. Poverty isn't an excuse for school failure. Neither is bad parenting. Or insufficient school funding.

But to overcome these obstacles, a school's staff and students must work harder -- in the evenings, on weekends and through the summer -- and give up some of their personal lives for their jobs.

Arguably nowhere is this trend so pronounced as in New Orleans, where charter schools mushroomed after Hurricane Katrina and hundreds of ambitious young educators like Giesler now live and teach. A looming question facing school leaders is how to maintain momentum as teachers and administrators inevitably grow up, burn out or move on.

A growing group of educators and policy wonks say they are not particularly concerned about chronic teacher turnover in urban schools, as long as there's a pipeline of bright workaholics to fill the vacancies.

"I don't think turnover is inherently bad," said Andrew Rotherham, publisher of Education Sector, an education policy think tank. "Planned turnover or turnover you can deal with without yielding quality is fine."

Others stress that more value should be placed on making teaching a viable career for those who do not meet the typical Teach For America profile: young, well-educated and unattached.

…A recent report from the Education Sector raised questions about the capacity of top-tier charter networks to expand without additional resources or policy changes.

While teacher salaries tend to be lower at such schools because the staff is less experienced, high turnover rates force the schools to spend more money on recruitment and training, according to the report. Moreover, the schools often depend on infusions of private money to maintain their rigorous programs.

Advocates of alternative recruitment programs point out that attrition rates among first-year teachers in urban schools are high regardless of where the teachers come from or the hours they work. A Harvard study, for instance, found that 61 percent of Teach For America participants stay with teaching beyond the two-year commitment, on par with the overall percentage of new teachers in high-poverty schools.

Yet a couple of studies concluded that some charters burn through teachers more quickly than traditional schools. A recent report by the Texas Center for Educational Research put the average teacher turnover for charter schools in 2006 in that state at 43 percent, compared to 16 percent for traditional public school districts. And a 2007 study by Western Michigan University researchers found younger teachers were significantly more likely to leave charter schools than older ones. It put national attrition rates for new charter school teachers at 40 percent.

Rotherham points out that high rates of turnover can not be attributed to any single factor. "It's a mix of things, but because the debate is so political, supporters or detractors tend to seize on to one piece," he said.

The debates over experience can obscure the more important issue of how to retain the best teachers, whether they are novices or 30-year veterans.

Gallagher said he'll cajole and bargain with young teachers to persuade them to stay in New Orleans as long as possible. Some charter leaders ask teachers to make a five-year commitment, and hope to offer bonuses, significant raises or sabbatical opportunities to successful teachers who stay longer. Some have opened school-based child-care centers to ease the burden on staff with young children.


New Orleans charter schools work to sustain teachers' energy, results

By Sarah Carr, The Times-Picayune

March 07, 2010, 5:00AM

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