Aug. 17, 2017

Higher turnover, less experience—how charter schools compare to the districts and what it means for students

By Eleanor Chute

Aug. 17, 2017

Higher turnover, less experience—how charter schools compare to the districts and what it means for students

By Eleanor Chute

Brendan McCaskey, music teacher for the sixth and seventh grades at the Environmental Charter School, talks with students during an outdoor music class on May 23, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

Parents have told Propel Schools officials over and over again in focus groups and conversations: The teachers and staff are what matters. Students form bonds with them, develop trust. It’s common sense that these kinds of relationships are catalysts for learning.

So should schools and parents worry about teacher turnover?

Several experts told PublicSource that while turnover may bring fresh ideas, consistency in teaching staff at a school often yields strong results.

Propel CEO/Superintendent Tina Chekan agrees. “We know when teachers stay with us for a longer period of time, our students have more success.”

Chekan is one of the original Propel teachers. She joined Propel as a kindergarten teacher when it opened its first charter school in Homestead in 2003 and has risen through the ranks as Propel has expanded to 13 schools this fall.

Her career with Propel, however, is unusual—among Propel Schools and the other brick-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County.

First-year teacher Tara Perpignan gives some of her second-grade students one-on-one help at Propel Hazelwood. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Many brick-and-mortar charter schools have faced sizeable turnover of teachers and other professionals since the first charter schools opened locally in 1998. This past school year, about 15 percent of teachers and other professionals had been among those who helped open the schools over nearly two decades, according to a PublicSource analysis of data provided by charter schools.

At Propel’s first school in Homestead, one original teacher remains and four others, like Chekan, are still employed in the Propel system.

There will be 27 brick-and-mortar charter schools operating in the county this fall, two of which are new. And, as charter schools grow by students and staff, a trend has emerged. Charter schools on average employ less experienced professionals than district-operated public schools.

“When you invest in teachers, it’s more than salary.”

Some early-career teachers and turnover can be good because it can help to reinvigorate a school, said Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University.

But Kraft said high turnover can affect student performance negatively in two ways: Teachers on average improve with experience, so a staff with too many junior teachers is less likely to be effective. High turnover undercuts efforts to improve instruction, align curriculum and develop collaboration among teachers to provide peer feedback and support.

Kraft said research shows teachers improve rapidly between the first three to five years and continue to improve into their mid-careers. After five years, teachers have developed a core of expertise that can help peers, he said.

About half of charter school teachers in Allegheny County in 2015-16 were in their first five years in education, according to our analysis of data from the Commonwealth Foundation on and the state Department of Education. Only 16 percent of district teachers were in their first five years in education.

Turnover also is expensive, said Gary Miron, a professor at the Department of Educational Leadership, Research and Technology at Western Michigan University. “When you invest in teachers, it’s more than salary,” he said. “You invest a lot of personnel time in training them, faculty meetings, professional learning communities.”

Three teachers in one year

Turnover can take a toll on students.

Michele Margittai of the South Side chose Propel Northside for her son, Nico, now 12, who began first grade there when the school opened in 2011. She said the first two years were “wonderful” and most of the teachers were “incredibly committed and talented, younger in their careers, full of energy and ideas.” But, ultimately, consistency suffered from so much staff turnover — she recalls her son having three teachers in the same position in one year. He transferred to Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 for sixth grade last year.

Brittany Ford, a behavioral support aide at Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, gets students in line following lunch on April 25, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Parent Leah Walker sent the oldest of her five children to Propel Montour when it opened in 2007. She now has four children at the school. She said a teacher’s departure can cause sadness and uncertainty, but the school has tried to smooth the transitions by explaining the situation to the students in advance, if possible. One teacher even sent Walker an email to let her know she was leaving so her son wouldn’t be surprised when school resumed in the fall.

While she said turnover has increased as teachers move to other Propel positions, Walker, who lives in the Sto-Rox School District, said her children haven’t been hurt academically. “I think it’s important to teach children that there are circumstances when people do move on,” she said.

Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said “chronically high turnover” hinders student achievement. “It’s very disruptive. Suppose you’re a student and had two to three math teachers in the same year. It’s very hard to have any continuity in a department in a high school when every year new teachers are coming and going.”

Kraft said it is typical for a public school or district to lose 10 percent of teachers a year although it can vary widely among schools within a district. He said a loss of 15 to 20 percent annually is “starting to get to a point where there’s so much churn it undercuts” the school’s efforts.

The breakdown on experience

In Allegheny County’s brick-and-mortar charter schools, nearly one in four teachers and other professionals were in their first year at the school because of teachers leaving and schools growing. About one in 10 of all charter school professionals were in their first year in education anywhere in 2015-16, the state and Commonwealth Foundation data show.

There was a much smaller percentage of inexperienced teachers and other professionals in the county’s 43 school districts, many of which have been cutting staff in the face of tight budgets. On average, just 4 percent of teachers and other professionals were in their first year in the districts and 3 percent were in their first year in education in 2015-16.

Experience comparisons between charter schools and traditional public school districts in Allegheny County

The experience level in education anywhere and at a particular school or district for teachers and other professionals is significantly different between local charters and districts.

Source: PublicSource analysis of data from the Commonwealth Foundation ( and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Note that percentages will not add up to 100 because it is referring to segments of the schools’ staffs.

The contrast also was stark at the other end of the experience spectrum that school year.

Just 26 percent of the professionals at county charter schools had 10 or more years of experience in education anywhere, while 69 percent of those in district-operated schools did. At county charter schools on average, only 10 percent had 10 or more years’ experience at the particular school, compared to 64 percent in the particular school district.

Of course, some charter schools weren’t around 10 years ago, but even those that opened in 2005 or earlier had about half the percentage of teachers with 10 or more years in education as the county’s school districts in 2015-16.

Within school districts, turnover can vary greatly by school. In a typical year in Pittsburgh Public Schools, about 20 percent of the teachers and other professionals are new to a building, whether a new hire or a transfer, said Brian Glickman, director of talent management for the district. But the state data for the district overall shows just 6 percent of teachers and other professionals in their first year in 2015-16.

Why teachers leave

Nationwide, charter schools tend to have more new or inexperienced teachers, and such teachers have higher turnover rates regardless of school type, according to Marisa Cannata, a research assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations at Vanderbilt University and director of the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools.

She said charter schools also may recruit staff who are entrepreneurial-minded and view the job as a multi-year commitment but not as a career-long commitment. Charter schools tend to hire more teachers who are younger, don’t have a master’s degree and are a racial minority — all characteristics associated with higher turnover, Cannata said.

City Charter High School teacher Mark Barga leads a cultural literacy class on May 26, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Turnover also reflects working conditions. According to Kraft, teachers are more likely to leave schools that serve many low-income and minority students, primarily because these students often attend schools that lack supportive working conditions.

The fact that traditional schools often offer more job security also plays a role, Kraft said. In Pennsylvania, traditional public schools have union contracts with set pay scales and more job security while charter schools typically do not have guaranteed pay scales but instead are performance-based.

When teachers do leave, they often are leaving the profession, not just going to another school, according to Cannata.

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For example, Manchester Academic Charter School CEO Vasilios Scoumis reviewed the names of about two dozen teachers who left the school in recent years and said he knew of only a few who were teaching in a school district.

Tracy Carr, special education director at Manchester Academic, who joined the staff as a teacher in 2000, said she has seen colleagues leave for a variety of reasons: some for more pay and job security, some to get married or move, and some who “just don’t fit into this kind of environment.” Nearly all of the students at the K-8 school are economically disadvantaged, which can result in trauma that affects them in school.

Retaining teachers

Some charter schools are devising ways to try to keep more of their teachers.

Lynne Baldwin, who has been on the staff at Manchester Academic since it opened in 1998 and helps children learn to read, said: “Teachers are becoming younger. You see a new wave of how they’re approaching education a little bit differently.”

Manchester has a mentoring program for those new teachers as well as professional learning communities that meet each week, said Scoumis, who was a teacher at Manchester when the school opened in 1998.

“I think it’s important to teach children that there are circumstances when people do move on.”

At Urban Pathways 6-12 in Downtown Pittsburgh, Kathleen Garland started as a teacher at the school more than a dozen years ago and is about to enter her fourth year as principal/CEO. She said 38 percent of the total staff—some of them teachers—in 2015-16 didn’t return the following school year. With classes set to begin Aug. 28, Garland said, at this point, about a quarter of the total staff from 2016-17 won’t be returning this fall.

Garland said she is working to improve relationships with the staff, including starting a leadership team to provide input. “They felt their voices were heard. That doesn’t mean everything they thought was what we did,” she said.

She said the school also is building positive student behavior supports and has been providing better professional development, including training on addressing the needs of urban students. About 65 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to 2015-16 state figures.

Propel is undertaking one of the more extensive efforts to retain teachers in its system and is beginning to see results. Near the end of the 2016-17 school year, 88 percent of the teachers in Propel Schools from 2015-16 were still employed by Propel. In 2012-13, the retention rate for the Propel system was 70 percent. Teachers who move from one Propel school to another are counted as retained.

Kimberly Roberts, senior director of talent at Propel, said Propel looks for teachers who “understand the challenges our children come from and [are] able to help them address those” and observes them twice teaching Propel students before hiring. At the Propel schools existing in 2015-16, the majority of students were economically disadvantaged.

Propel Superintendent Tina Chekan pauses at the end of the third-floor hallway of Propel Hazelwood during a tour. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Propel provides an induction program, professional development, mentoring and other supports over a three-year period to help new teachers. “It’s important for new teachers to feel they have that support system so they don’t leave after the first year of teaching,” Chekan said.

Propel also initiated the Pittsburgh Urban Teaching Corps, a partnership with Chatham University in which students who have a passion for equity and urban education can earn a master’s degree while doing a residency at Propel. In return for financial support, the participants must teach at Propel for three years or repay the dollars.

Teachers who choose to stay at charter schools see advantages.

Carr, who felt like she was “in that little box” when she taught at a traditional public school in Westmoreland County, said she experiences the “joy of teaching” and values more flexibility to help students at Manchester.

“We feel like we’re family here now, especially being here so long,” she said.

StoryEleanor Chute

Eleanor is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

PhotographyRyan Loew and John Hamilton

Ryan is PublicSource's visual producer. John is a photography intern for PublicSource.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web developmentNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.