Education Innovation
Is High Teacher Turnover a Problem?

Perhaps not, according to the NYT‘s latest piece on Success Academy, a network of charter schools in New York City that serves mainly lower-income minority groups (previous coverage here and here). The network is most notable for its students’ high pass rates on state exams. In New York City in 2o14, “29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests.” At Success, the rates were 64 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

Even schools with remarkable figures like this have their critics, and among their complaints about this model is its high rate of teacher turnover. But wait—that may not be such a bad thing:

The high-pressure atmosphere at Success leads to substantial teacher turnover, though the precise rate is unclear. According to the latest school report cards, in 2013-14 three Success schools had turnover rates above 50 percent, meaning more than half the teachers from the previous year did not stay.

But Success officials said that these figures are inflated by the number of teachers who move from one Success school to another, or to nonteaching positions within the network. According to its own numbers, attrition from the network from June 2013 to June 2014 was 17 percent. By comparison, attrition from the city’s public school system in 2013-14 was 6.1 percent, according to the Department of Education.

Still, current and former employees said departures were common.

The piece does depict Success Academy as a highly demanding, competitive work environment; teachers are not unionized and work long hours. If they do well, however—that is, if their students do well—they can be promoted quickly, and even become a principal early in their career. Those who leave seem to have good prospects in other careers.

More importantly, the idea that teaching should be a lifelong career protected and underwritten by unions should be questioned more often. A “promote or leave” attitude could help schools identify teachers who have the skill and passion to stay in the profession for the long term, and also keep new blood running through the system. Success has found a way to mix high turnover with effective results capably staffing its growing number of schools. That model ought to be evaluated fairly for its merits as well as its flaws—not dismissed because it doesn’t fit the expected pattern in public schools.

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