Are Charter Schools Successful Because They Make Teachers Work Long Hours?

Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times that charter school teachers tend to turn over pretty quickly. The average charter teacher has only a few years of experience, compared to 14 in traditional public schools. However, even though everyone agrees that teachers with five-plus years of experience are better than those with only three or four years, charter school outcomes are pretty similar to those of public schools. Matt Yglesias wonders what’s going on:

Given that these charters are really held back by having such a large share of first- and second-year teachers, how is it that they’re able to produce decent educational results? The evidence isn’t airtight, but the natural inference to make from the turnover data is that the experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.

….If kids in charter schools were on average clearly learning less than kids in traditional public schools, then it’d be easy to finger the teacher turnover issue as the culprit. But they’re not doing worse, despite charter schools’ problems with hanging on to teachers for more than a few years. The interesting question is what accounts for that.

I have a different guess. Charter school teachers might very well be the cream of the crop, but I suspect the real key to their success is long working hours. This is also what accounts for the turnover. Charter schools tend to demand that their teachers work very long hours and remain on call for students during the evening. That’s grueling stuff, and very few people are willing to do it for long. If you’re young, idealistic, unmarried, and have no kids, it might be rewarding for a while. After a while, though, it just gets to be a grind.

Even though I basically support experimenting with charters, this is the single biggest reason I’m skeptical of the charter model. Obviously some of them do very well, but if expanding the model nationwide requires an army of high-quality teachers willing to work long hours for modest pay, where are they going to come from? This is why I’d really like to see more examples of the charter model working with teachers—either young or old—who put in normal hours. That’s a scalable model and might give us some insight into what it takes to improve our schools. Conversely, if the answer turns out to be “bright young kids willing to work long hours for lousy pay,” we haven’t really learned much. I don’t doubt that it can work, but I do doubt that it can work for more than a small fraction of our children.

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.