Weisberg & Campbell: 3 Ways Charter Schools Can Make Sure They Recruit, Hire, and Retain the Teachers They Need

By Daniel Weisberg and Christine Campbell | February 19, 2018

Summer vacation may still be months away, but school leaders across the country are already gearing up to hire teachers for the next school year. Many will find themselves in the same predicament they’ve faced for years: scrambling until the last minute to fill open positions, especially in crucial subjects like math, science, and special education.

It’s a story sadly familiar to anyone who follows education news, but one that’s usually associated with traditional school districts. Yet public charter schools struggle with teacher hiring and retention every bit as much as district schools, often for very preventable reasons. That’s not only bad for students; it also threatens charter schools’ ability to reach the next level of scale and quality they’ll need to survive over the long run.

In a recent analysis of 18 high-choice cities, the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education found that school districts often did not collect detailed enough data about teacher vacancies and shortage areas to create clear hiring and retention strategies — but the charter sector was in even worse shape. Most didn’t have reliable data on vacancies beyond individual schools or networks, and even in cities where charter schools accounted for half of student enrollment or more, nobody was able to provide a sector-wide view of teacher or leadership needs.

This makes sense in some ways: Charter schools are fiercely independent by design, and they take full advantage of autonomy and decentralization to offer unique learning environments to the communities they serve. When it comes to teacher pipelines and growth, however, decentralization can lead to inconsistency and wasted effort.

Without a sector-wide view of teacher talent needs and a strategy to tackle them, charter schools with lesser-known brands or smaller infrastructures, like independent schools or regional networks, will struggle every year to find enough effective teachers in high-need subject areas. At a time when charter schools account for 10, 25, even 45 percent of public school enrollment in urban areas, this represents thousands of students across the country who won’t start the school year with the teachers they need.

There’s a tendency to portray teacher shortages or turnover issues as forces of nature, beyond any school’s power to control. But the truth — and the good news — is that charter sectors have a lot more control over their teacher pipelines than they realize. And there are steps that charter operators, authorizers, and city-based organizations can take right now to make sure that charter schools have effective teachers in all classrooms to start the school year.

1 Admit that this is a shared challenge — and find some partners.

Long-term teacher recruitment and retention challenges are too big for individual schools or charter networks to solve alone. Charters need to take advantage of existing collaborative networks in their cities — or, if none exist, form one. Ideally, these networks should extend beyond the charter sector to include local districts and nonprofit organizations. For example, Denver Public Schools helps analyze citywide teacher pipeline data for both traditional schools and charter schools in the city. DPS is able to play a key role in data collection and analysis because it is the sole authorizer of the city’s charter schools. In Indianapolis, the local nonprofit The Mind Trust recently analyzed projected teacher needs across the city’s charter sector and plans to use the data to inform the way it supports schools of all kinds. In New Orleans, where most schools are charters, the nonprofit organization New Schools for New Orleans collects school-specific data and identifies retention rates and projected vacancy rates, which schools and networks can use to develop talent strategies.

2 Gather, share, and analyze data to identify teacher recruitment and retention goals.

Too often, education leaders respond to teacher shortages by rushing into quick-fix solutions, like paying hiring bonuses for new teachers, without taking the time to diagnose their real teacher pipeline problems. The only way charters can do that is by gathering and sharing hard data, and using the data to answer important questions. Are schools really struggling to recruit a reasonable number of new teachers, or are low retention rates the bigger issue? Which teachers are staying, and which are leaving? Which subjects and geographic areas face the biggest shortages? How will demand for particular kinds of teachers change next year — or five years from now?

In Denver, when the school district did a deep-dive analysis to improve the quality of teacher applicants (it had already determined quantity was not a problem), it collected information from charter and district schools. DPS then partnered with charter schools and the mayor’s office on a citywide recruitment campaign, Make Your Mark, to improve teacher diversity citywide. Had they not let data guide their strategy, DPS and charter leaders might have spent huge amounts of money to attract more teacher applicants, even though they already had more than enough. Instead, they’ve been able to focus resources on their most important pipeline challenges.

3 Develop a shared recruitment and retention strategy that meets the collective need.

Once they have data, charter leaders should collaborate with their partners on shared solutions. This is especially important in cities where both charter and district schools face similar pipeline challenges. We’ve seen that collaborating instead of competing in these situations can lead to better results for all schools.

In western Massachusetts, TNTP has helped districts and charter schools on goal-setting, data collection, and a coordinated marketing campaign. Through ongoing progress monitoring, network partner schools have filled a combined 200 vacancies each year. In a single year, Holyoke Public Schools went from filling most of its vacancies after August to hiring 90 percent of its staff by August 1.

The solutions above can help charters grow to the next level of reach and impact in an increasingly hostile political climate. And, more important, charters can create better school experiences for thousands of students. With better data and clearer strategies, they can make inroads into solving teacher hiring and retention challenges that have bedeviled schools for years.

It’s time for charter leaders to channel their annual anxiety about this important challenge into action — and for the rest of us to start to support that effort.

Daniel Weisberg is chief executive officer of TNTP, an education nonprofit that helps school systems across the country end educational inequality and achieve their goals for students.

Christine Campbell is policy director and senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

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