Charter Schools’ Latest Innovation: Keeping Teachers Happy

Eighty- and 90-hour work weeks are all too familiar to some charter school teachers.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Shutterstock (

NEW ORLEANS—One Wednesday afternoon last fall, teachers at Success Preparatory Academy gathered for a professional-development session on an unlikely subject: their grocery lists.

Principal and co-founder Niloy Gangopadhyay had enlisted a nutritionist to talk about healthy eating. On the agenda: healthy, easy-to-make dishes; coping mechanisms for work stress, like going for a walk instead of opening a bottle of wine; and how to shop for protein- and fiber-rich foods, like Louisiana crawfish or flame-grilled meatless burgers. The information was designed to send two important messages to the twenty- and thirtysomething teachers, many of whom work more than 60 hours a week: Take care of yourself. And we want you to stay.

As charter schools have proliferated New Orleans and the country, many schools, including Success Prep, have largely relied on young, inexperienced teachers who tend to leave the classroom sooner than their peers at traditional public schools—an approach to hiring sometimes described as “churn and burn.” Charter supporters like Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp have even insisted that strong schools with an emphasis on good training can survive the constant loss of teachers.

But as the charter school movement comes of age, school leaders are realizing that stability and consistency matter, and that good teachers aren’t widgets that can easily be replaced. As a result, schools are offering new perks designed to build sustainable staffs, like retirement plans, on-site childcare, and nutrition advice. They face an uphill battle, however, in countering the deeply ingrained perception that many charter jobs are high-velocity detours for young people on the way to something else. In part, they’re hoping to rebrand charter-school teaching as a viable long-term career option with the job security we associate with traditional public schools—at least up to a point.

While these changes can’t match the pensions, union protections, and tenure provisions teachers have at many traditional schools, they mark a significant shift for charters. Long-term teacher retention wasn’t a priority at Success Prep when the school opened in 2009, part of a radical reconstruction of the city’s long-troubled school system after Hurricane Katrina that involved opening dozens of new charter schools. The plan was to “constantly replace teachers with new teachers,” says Gangopadhyay, 35, while focusing on providing the staff with strong curricular professional development. Most of the founding teachers had just a couple years of experience in the classroom. (Although three had more than 10 years of experience teaching.) The average age was 29. First-year teachers at Success Prep make $44,295.

Because of the demanding nature of the job, departures were expected. Most teachers, Gangopadhyay then believed, had “a shelf life” at his school.

Throughout the charter sector, that’s largely been true. At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, almost a quarter of charter school teachers left their schools or the profession, compared to 15.5 percent in traditional public schools, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The transiency can be attributed to a few main causes: At urban charters like Success, which frequently serve mostly low-income, underprepared students of color, teachers are expected to work considerably longer hours than is typical—sometimes as much as 80 or 90 hours a week. Such charters, often referred to as “no excuses” schools, rely heavily on programs like Teach for America, which import young teachers for two-year commitments. And charter school teachers are far less likely to belong to unions, and have less job security as a result. While charter school leaders don’t necessarily plan on high turnover, it might be “a necessary byproduct” of an intense, results-driven approach, says Andy Rotherham, a co-founder of Bellwether Education, a nonprofit consulting organization that works with charter schools.

At Success Prep, teacher attrition has worsened over the years. In 2012 the school lost just three out of 24 teachers, but the following year, six more departed. As a result, all but one of the eighth-grade teachers were new last fall. The instability led to student misbehavior and classroom management problems early on in the school year according to John Gonzalez, a first-year eighth-grade math teacher. Students didn’t have relationships with most of their teachers, which made enforcing strict rules—already tough to sell to the young teens—even more difficult.

Gangopadhyay admits that Success Prep hired more new teachers than the school’s teacher-coaching staff could handle this year. Success Prep has struggled, he said, to train so many novice teachers while also recruiting virtually year-round to fill next year’s expected vacancies. Ten teachers—more than 20 percent of the school’s teaching staff—are leaving at the end of this school year, some for graduate school or to make more space in their lives for family commitments. Gangopadhyay now realizes something has to change.

Charter school leaders across the country are facing similar moments of reckoning. At YES Prep, a network of 13 charter schools in Houston, leaders began rethinking teacher sustainability at the beginning of this school year. The average classroom teacher at YES Prep stays for about 2 ½ years.

Superintendent Mark DiBella pored through student test-score data, and found that more experienced, stable teachers were producing noticeably better student results. He quickly assembled a committee of teachers to devise recommendations for getting more teachers to commit to at least five years in the classroom.

The network announced earlier this month a series of initiatives to improve retention, including across-the-board pay raises. In addition, more seasoned teachers will have a personal budget to spend on professional development, and more input on how their job evaluations will work. The network has also cut back on school hours and mandatory after-school activities.

At the country’s biggest chain of charter schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (or KIPP), officials believe teachers will stay if their principals stay, too. Until two years ago, only half of the network’s principals remained in their position after four years.

KIPP, which encompasses 162 schools, redesigned its principal-training program four years ago to emphasize sustainability: It now teaches principals to share leadership responsibilities with other staff and to exhort teachers to take time for rest. Last year, principal retention beyond four years jumped to 82 percent, according to Steve Mancini, the network’s director of public affairs.*

Annual teacher retention has also gone up, though less dramatically, from 68 percent in 2012 to 70 percent last school year. The goal is 80 percent.

Schools in the KIPP network have made a variety of changes aimed at making the job more sustainable, particularly for teachers who have children of their own. Nearly a third of KIPP teachers now have access to on-site day cares, a rarity across the sector. Some KIPP schools have shortened their school days and eliminated mandatory Saturday sessions. KIPP schools are also piloting a Common Core–aligned math and reading curriculum this year, partly so teachers won’t have to spend so much time devising their own.

At Success Prep, which is not part of a bigger network, Gangopadhyay relies on the school’s most senior teachers and staff—there are only eight who’ve worked at the school longer than four years —for feedback on how to keep staff. In the last year, he’s made a lot of changes aimed at shoring up teacher retention.  

Gangopadhyay knows teachers won’t stay unless they feel valued. So he spent a February afternoon encouraging some of the school’s instructional coaches to emphasize teachers’ strengths before laying out the areas that need improvement.

“Unless you can constantly replace super-talented people with even better people, the best way to go is to keep people,” Gangopadhyay says. “And the way you keep people is to let them know they’re doing a great job.”

This type of feedback, even when it’s critical, is especially crucial for new teachers as they tumble through the challenges of their first year in the classroom, says Gonzalez, of Success Prep. “If I am teaching five years from now, I’d hope it’d be here,” he says.

Success Prep administrators have also made more tangible changes to keep their strongest teachers. Next year, teachers who take on added responsibilities (like coaching a sports team or leading a grade-level team) could receive pay bumps. Performing well on the state’s teacher-evaluation system, which is based in part on student test scores, will also result in a raise.

Gangopadhyay hired teaching assistants from programs like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Avodah, a Jewish service corps, in kindergarten through fourth grade to alleviate teachers’ workload. The assistants help prepare materials or cover class when, for example, a grade-level chair needs to observe a colleague.

The school has also put a premium on teacher health. It altered the school calendar to give teachers one day off each semester, called “doctor days,” so teachers can catch up on medical and other appointments. Health insurance offerings have expanded to include optional cancer screenings, physical rehabilitation, and mental health services.

Gangopadhyay says the absence of a traditional public pension program and lower salaries in New Orleans make attracting veteran teachers tough; the hiring pool is often limited to less experienced educators, he says. So the school created a new 401(k) matched retirement savings plan to help fill that gap.

National data suggests that efforts to boost charter school teacher retention may be starting to pay off. By the 2012-13 school year, the most recent data available, turnover at charter schools had decreased to 18.4 percent. (The data is only collected every four years, and the recession probably also affected teachers’ decisions.)

At schools like Success, which hire mostly New Orleans transplants, some teachers worry the changes might be too little too late. Many educators will tire of the grind, seek career advancement elsewhere, or want more flexible schedules to start families—no matter how good the benefits are.

Jeremy Guyton, 24, a third-year dance teacher originally from California, is leaving Success Prep at the end of this school year to run a youth dance program that will offer him greater flexibility in both his professional and personal life. Success Prep’s heavy focus on standards and testing has stifled what Guyton calls a core foundation of dance education: creativity. The new benefits are important, he says, but regular turnover of teachers makes it “easy to feel like I can just be replaced.”

Gangopadhyay knows he can’t rely solely on “doctor days” and 401(k)s. So this year he’s focused his recruitment efforts on hiring experienced teachers who have already demonstrated a long-term commitment to the profession. He’s hired eight teachers for next year so far: Two currently teach in other New Orleans schools, four are coming from out of state, and two are teaching assistants already working at Success Prep. Most of them have more years of experience than the teachers they’re replacing.

Noeleen Hay, a 15-year teaching veteran and one of two founding teachers at Success Prep who remain at the school, hopes teachers who stay past the five-year mark will become the norm, like they are in so many traditional public schools. “These are the highest-needs children in the country and they need longevity,” she says.

In a school-reform movement defined by change, stability might be the hardest sell of all.

This story was produced by The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering teachers.

Correction, April 30, 2015: This post originally misstated the four-year principal-retention rate within KIPP. It was 82 percent last year, not 92 percent. (Return.)