Parallel Patterns: Teacher Attrition in Charter vs. District Schools

September 2010

Recent research and media reports have raised serious concerns about teacher turnover rates in charter schools. But it isn’t exactly clear why teacher turnover rates might be high in charter schools: is it a consequence of their less regulated labor market, or is it the types of students and neighborhoods where they tend to operate?

This study tracked the careers of 956 newly hired charter school teachers and 19,695 newly hired traditional public school teachers in Wisconsin between 1998 and 2006. Although not representative of the charter school sector overall, the study’s analysis of Wisconsin’s charter school sector provides some important clues about the nature of teacher turnover in charter schools: (1) high teacher turnover rates in Wisconsin’s charter schools are mostly a function of teacher characteristics (young and inexperienced) and school contexts (poor and urban), rather than a “charter effect,” and (2) teachers in Wisconsin's urban charter schools are less likely to leave their schools than similar teachers in urban traditional public schools.

To better understand teachers’ motivations for leaving and staying, researchers turned to national data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999–00 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) and 2000–01 Teacher Follow-up Survey (TFS). The SASS-TFS asked traditional public school teachers and charter school teachers who left their schools why they left. In response, teachers in both sectors pointed to a lack of administrative support, poor working conditions, and low salaries. However, compared to traditional public school teachers, charter school teachers were more likely to say that they left because of a lack of job security and the expansive nature of their work.

The study's findings suggest that the “charter effect” may not be a big driver of teacher turnover. Instead, turnover in charter schools appears to be driven by the same factors at work in traditional public schools—a combination of inexperienced teachers and demanding teaching environments. Although this observation likely stems from some of the particulars of Wisconsin’s charter school context, it nevertheless suggests that policymakers might help all public schools by better targeting resources (both financial and human capital) to schools that arguably need them the most—those that enroll the most underserved students—be they charter schools or traditional public schools.

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