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Study: Charters Struggle With Staffing Like Traditional Schools

By guest blogger Sarah D. Sparks.

This post originally appeared on EdWeek's Inside School Research blog.

Charter schools experiment with split work schedules, extended days, and a host of other staffing policies, but a study in the current issue of Education Finance and Policy suggests that they still struggle as much as traditional public schools to keep their best teachers and get rid of the ones who aren't effective.

Advocates often tout charter schools' self-governed and mostly nonunion staffing systems as more agile than those of traditional public schools, better able to hire great teachers and move along teachers found to be less effective. Organizational or human-resources differences between charter and district public schools "do not necessarily translate into a discernible difference in the ability to dismiss poorly performing teachers," the study concludes.

In "Do Charters Retain Teachers Differently? Evidence From Elementary Schools in Florida," researchers Joshua M. Cowen of the University of Kentucky in Lexington and Marcus A. Winters at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs analyzed patterns of mobility of 4th and 5th grade teachers in charter and traditional public schools throughout Florida from 2002-03 to 2008-09. They estimated each teacher's effectiveness based on her students' math and reading test scores, and then compared those with teachers' exit patterns in different types of schools.

The researchers found that, overall, teachers in traditional public schools were slightly more effective than their charter counterparts, particularly in mathematics, and charter school teachers in Florida were more likely to leave teaching during the time studied than their regular public school peers. While the least effective teachers were those most likely to leave in either type of school, charter schools were not more likely than other public schools to get rid of low-performing teachers.

All the usual provisos apply here—effectiveness is being gauged based on standardized-test scores, there likely are similar staffing policies at some charter and traditional public schools, and so on. But given all that, why do these results matter? In a word: unions.

Some advocates of using charters to improve teacher quality argue that unionization and charters don't mix, and that because most (but not all) charter schools have no collective bargaining agreements and more flexible staffing policies, they have more leeway to hire and fire teachers to fit their students.

As the authors note:

If bargaining contracts were restricting traditional public schools from dismissing the worst teachers—or perhaps from rewarding the best teachers in some way--we should expect to see that in schools without such agreements, teacher effectiveness played a particularly important role in determining which teachers remain. This simply does not appear to be the case here.

This is the latest in a long line of studies that suggest the differences among charter and other public schools may be greater than the differences between them, and it may be more effective to study best practices for teacher staffing policies across both kinds of schools.

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