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Striking Teacher Churn in Charter Schools

The high rates of teacher attrition raise questions about whether even the most successful charter schools can maintain quality amid the churn.

High-quality teachers are integral to academic achievement, experts agree, from Finland and Singapore to East New York and Morrisania. Cultivating excellent teachers and retaining them in the profession are paramount goals, shared by a bevy of bedfellows usually at odds in the education-reform debate, from teachers unions to charter-school champions like the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations.

But according to data from the New York State Department of Education, charter schools in New York City lose far more teachers every year than their traditional school counterparts. In some schools, more than half of faculty "turn over" from one school year to the next, according to NYSED school report cards.

Charter advocates at the New York City Charter School Center and at Success Academies, the city's largest charter network, say that at least some of the turnover is due to movement within school networks—teachers moving up the leadership ladder, for example, or to seed the faculty of new schools, which have opened at a rapid clip in recent years.

But even so, it's hard to explain a churn of more than half the veteran faculty, which is the case at 15 percent of charter schools for which the state reports data.

With so much scholarship on developing and holding onto talented teachers, why are New York's charter schools essentially draining of talent every year, with schools routinely losing a third, half, or, in extreme cases, up to two-thirds of classroom teachers? What happens to schools when faculty lounges have revolving doors? And how do charter leaders and advocates respond?

Big numbers, some disputes

New York State collects information on myriad data points for traditional and charter schools alike. Because so many charters opened late in the final Bloomberg term (or were scheduled by Mayor Bloomberg's team to open early in Mayor de Blasio's tenure), not all data is available on all 183 charter schools currently open. NYSED posted 2011-2012 teacher attrition data only on 70 city charter schools, tracking how many teachers left their jobs within their first five years of teaching and how many left overall.

Of the schools with available attrition data, 15 lost at least half of their teachers with five years or less experience. Another 13 schools lost at least 40 percent of these less-experienced teachers.

Teacher Turnover, 2011-2012: New Teachers (click to see the chart)

The situation is not much better for veteran teachers, who are often the minority in charter schools: Of the 70 schools, 10 lost more than half of their veteran faculty in the '11-'12 academic year; 24 schools saw more than 40 percent of experienced teachers exit. (See the chart below.)

Near the top of the turnover chart is the Success Academies system led by former Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. With 22 schools and 10 new schools opening in August 2014, it is the city's largest charter chain.

In Harlem Success Academies 1-4, the only schools for which the state posted turnover data, more than half of all teachers left the schools ahead of the 2013-14 school year. In one school, three out of four teachers departed.                                 

But Moskowitz's network cites different figures. "Our teacher retention rate is 83 percent," says Ann Powell, senior managing partner for communications. "This work is extraordinarily hard, and while we'd like the rate to be 100 percent, we could not be more proud of our teachers and leaders."

Indeed, statistics from sources other than NYSED point to lower attrition rates—though the numbers are still substantial. According to a 2012 report from the New York City Charter School Center, average teacher attrition rates in New York City charters ranged from a low of 26 percent to a high of 33 percent, or one in three teachers—compared with traditional-public-school attrition rates of 13 to 16 percent. Those numbers are averages, incorporating attrition rates from all city charter and traditional public schools.

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