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Study: Teacher turnover much higher at LA charters than public schools

File photo: Pupils listen to their teacher in a classroom on the first day of the school year.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images
File photo: Pupils listen to their teacher in a classroom on the first day of the school year.

A new study released Tuesday finds that teacher turnover at Los Angeles charter schools is nearly three times higher than in the district's traditional public schools.

The findings contribute to the current debate over teacher effectiveness.

Teachers leave schools for personal and professional reasons. At traditional L.A. Unified schools, teacher turnover hovered at about 15 percent during a recent six-year period, says UC Berkeley scholar Xiaoxia Newton.

At charter schools, she adds, it was about 40 percent. "One of the implications is that with nowadays' teacher evaluation and accountability and also teacher development focus, if we have such a mobile teaching force, how are we going to calculate value-added?"

That’s the new teacher evaluation method that’ll likely be part of L.A. Unified’s major overhaul of the way it evaluates and retains teachers.

Some teachers leave because they’re not cut out for teaching, Newton says, while others are good teachers who hit the burnout wall because of the seemingly endless demands at charter schools, including more hours. She suggests that’s too bad, because with the right support and professional development those good teachers could become great. Turnover is also higher among white teachers compared to minority teachers.

UC Berkeley’s Bruce Fuller oversaw the research. "We have seen earlier results showing that working conditions are tough and challenging in charter schools," says Fuller. "Charter teachers wear many hats and have many duties and are teaching urban kids, challenging urban kids, but we were surprised by the magnitude of this effect."

Fuller says that charters do "breed a lot of loyalty among parents and students, so the students are sticking around, the parents are committed to charter schools throughout L.A." Fuller says that teacher turnover "cuts into relationships. These parents and kids, by and large, expect to have strong links to these committed teachers. For whatever reason these teachers are leaving and that's going to undercut the motivation of kids and the commitment of parents."

L.A. has independent charter schools, but also Charter Management Organizations like Green Dot, which manage lots of campuses and become de facto school districts.

Turnover at schools in the 4,500-student ICEF Public Schools network in Los Angeles ranges from about 10 percent to 50 percent, says its recently-appointed chief executive, Parker Hudnut.

"Turnover is something that we’re absolutely focused on, to make sure that we keep the teachers we need to keep," says Hudnut, "but it’s very important for us to focus on keeping, to use a quote from Jim Collins, 'keep the right people on the bus.'"

Hudnot says that some turner is a good thing, with people looking different jobs or moving out of the area. "The question is what is the magical value of appropriate teacher turnover." ICEF runs 15 schools in and around L.A.

L.A. Unified includes the highest concentration of charter schools in the state. The UC Berkeley study is the first to examine teacher turnover in a sample of the district’s 163 charter schools.

Researchers chose L.A. Unified charters because it offered a large sample size. LAUSD is an epicenter for charters, with 163 in the district and 67,000 students. The district's also been home to big money supporters of charters, much debate about policies and clashes with critics like the teachers union.

Kate Beaudet’s been an L.A. Unified teacher for 16 years except for one year in which she taught at the Accelerated School, a charter campus in L.A. She liked the ability to deviate from the district’s scripted reading program but didn’t think management provided much support to teachers.

"We were not unionized and that was a huge thing," says Beaudet, "which I didn’t realize at the time how much my union meant to me until I was at this charter school, and that is huge. Now it happens to be unionized, many charter schools are."

Beaudet explained what not being unionized meant. "Having no representation, and then on top of it, most charters have these year-to-year contracts where you’re essentially an at-will employee, and for any reason whatsoever they can rescind your contract or they can just not offer you one, and they do not have to offer you a reason."