At charter schools, short careers by demand

N.Y. Times News ServiceAugust 27, 2013 

School Desks

— Tyler Dowdy just started his third year of teaching at YES Prep West, a charter school here. He figures now is a good time to explore his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.

Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28.

As tens of millions of pupils across the country begin their school year, charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.

Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools have an average of close to 14 years of experience, and public school leaders and policymakers have long made it a priority to reduce teacher turnover.

But with teachers confronting the overhaul of evaluations and tenure as well as looming changes in pensions, the small but rapidly growing charter school movement - with schools that are publicly financed but privately operated - is pushing to redefine the arc of a teaching career.

The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools.

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement. Advocates who argue that teaching should become more like medicine or law say that while programs like Teach for America fill a need in the short term, educational leaders should be focused on improving training and working environments so that teachers will invest in long careers.

“My take is yes, we do need and want some number of teachers to be ‘lifers,’ for lack of a better word,” said Doug McCurry, a co-chief executive of Achievement First, a nonprofit charter operator with 25 schools in Connecticut, New York and Providence, R.I., where teachers spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom. But, he said, he would be happy if “the majority of the teachers that walked in the door gave us five or seven really good teaching years and then went on to do something else.”

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