Are Charter Schools Successful Because They Make Teachers Work Long Hours?

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Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times that charter school teachers tend to turn over pretty quickly. The average charter teacher has only a few years of experience, compared to 14 in traditional public schools. However, even though everyone agrees that teachers with five-plus years of experience are better than those with only three or four years, charter school outcomes are pretty similar to those of public schools. Matt Yglesias wonders what’s going on:

Given that these charters are really held back by having such a large share of first- and second-year teachers, how is it that they’re able to produce decent educational results? The evidence isn’t airtight, but the natural inference to make from the turnover data is that the experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.

….If kids in charter schools were on average clearly learning less than kids in traditional public schools, then it’d be easy to finger the teacher turnover issue as the culprit. But they’re not doing worse, despite charter schools’ problems with hanging on to teachers for more than a few years. The interesting question is what accounts for that.

I have a different guess. Charter school teachers might very well be the cream of the crop, but I suspect the real key to their success is long working hours. This is also what accounts for the turnover. Charter schools tend to demand that their teachers work very long hours and remain on call for students during the evening. That’s grueling stuff, and very few people are willing to do it for long. If you’re young, idealistic, unmarried, and have no kids, it might be rewarding for a while. After a while, though, it just gets to be a grind.

Even though I basically support experimenting with charters, this is the single biggest reason I’m skeptical of the charter model. Obviously some of them do very well, but if expanding the model nationwide requires an army of high-quality teachers willing to work long hours for modest pay, where are they going to come from? This is why I’d really like to see more examples of the charter model working with teachers—either young or old—who put in normal hours. That’s a scalable model and might give us some insight into what it takes to improve our schools. Conversely, if the answer turns out to be “bright young kids willing to work long hours for lousy pay,” we haven’t really learned much. I don’t doubt that it can work, but I do doubt that it can work for more than a small fraction of our children.

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