Motoko Rich’s piece in the NY Times, At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice, troubles me. Rich describes the 2.5 year average career of teachers at the charter chain, YES Prep, along with teaching careers averaging 4 years at KIPP and New York’s Success Academy charter networks. Certainly there is nothing wrong with hiring young teachers who often bring enthusiasm and energy to their work, but these chains of charter schools are not hiring experienced teachers. Rich surmises that charter chains may be establishing a culture of short stints for young people as teachers, a contrast to the career school teachers of earlier generations.
The teachers Rich describes at YES Prep Charter Schools undergo a two and a half week training intended to immerse them in the school-wide discipline techniques and specific formulas for curricula delivery. A principal observing a beginning teacher, for example, corrects the words this teacher has taught students to chant, a rote practice all children in the school are expected to master. It is unclear whether YES Prep Charter Schools require their teachers to be certified or whether the states in which the schools operate require traditional certification in charter schools. It is also unclear whether the teachers at this school are expected to individualize or personalize learning.
Teachers being certified in college programs, on the other hand, must study child and adolescent development, extensive methods classes, academic courses in the areas they will teach, and philosophy and psychology of education. They must also, these days, teach at several points during their training, all under the supervision and mentoring of their professors It is expected in traditional public schools that teachers will serve as more than deliverers of prescribed lessons and implementers of a set of discipline procedures.
In an excellent book of essays published early this summer, Public Education Under Siege, edited by Michael Katz and Mike Rose, David Labaree, a professor at Stanford University, explains why teachers need experience, not merely energy, youth, and the will to master a charter network’s prescribed lesson techniques. According to Labaree, to be effective, a teacher needs to develop and establish a “teaching persona,” a sense of identity that comfortably establishes a sense of control and brings together a “teaching voice,” a mastery of structure and routine, and a clear grasp of expectations and goals. Well-trained teachers incorporate what they have learned in college, the content mastery and the learning theory, into their teaching persona, but without this persona, they will be unable to accomplish the complex multitasking required of every teacher. Labaree believes the first years of a teacher’s career are spent developing this persona. Experience matters.
Here are at least some of the things a well developed teaching persona helps a teacher do, sometimes all at once: know each student and respond to each child’s particular needs and learning style; present the curriculum in a way that is individualized to all the students’ particular needs; maintain order and a respectful, safe classroom environment; time the lessons to keep the students moving forward, and be comfortable enough in the teaching persona and the routine to engage teachable moments, incorporate humor, and stay in touch with the sense of vocation that called the teacher to this profession in the first place.
Another book published last spring, David Kirp’s wonderful Improbable Scholars, describes the children who thrive in impoverished Union City, New Jersey, but its primary focus is the experienced teachers who live in Union City and shape the school environment to the needs of the children, the vast majority immigrants from Central and South America. Many of the teachers know their students’ lives intimately because they experienced childhood in the very same setting. They integrate their training into a district-wide curriculum they have themselves designed, a curriculum that incorporates bilingual language arts and the requirement that the children read in their native language before they begin reading in English. The professionals Kirp profiles have been instrumental in turning around this school district and mentoring new teachers who in turn become committed to educating Union City’s children.
The teachers profiled by Kirp are not merely taking on teaching as a short- term job to build a resume or as something to do while they decide on a lifetime career. They are well-trained, and reflective about how the classrooms they establish will be safe, respectful settings for children to learn and mature. It’s a very different vision for education than the one Motoko Rich describes at YES Prep Charter Schools.
Of course one primary difference is the cost. A school where teachers stay two or four years never has to pay for teaching experience. Such schools can rotate in the next crop of college graduates. Administrators at some of the schools Rich describes admit that if they could pay more, they could attract more experienced teachers and that experience might be a benefit for their schools.
Charters are far less likely to be unionized and therefore less likely to pay well, build in raises for experience, or offer comparable fringe benefits. In these times of widespread austerity across state legislatures, times when state budgets haven’t yet recovered from the 2008 recession and yet many states are at the same time cutting taxes, charter schools where salaries tend to be considerably lower than the traditional public schools can appear to be a way to save money. But at what cost?