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Teacher turnover high at the 'takeover schools'

External managers struggle with staffing instability

by Kurt Spiridakis

Teacher turnover increased between June and September 2002 at most of the schools in Philadelphia that were assigned to external managers or subject to special intervention.

This pattern among schools was evident across all types of interventions and managers, including for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), nonprofit entities, the District-run "restructured schools," and schools designated to become charter schools.

The problem of staffing instability was especially severe at the conversion charter schools and those run by three of the external management groups -- Universal, Edison, and Victory. Data on anticipated vacancies for the fall of 2003 indicate that teacher turnover may continue to be a problem next year in the schools subject to external intervention.

An examination of School District staffing data indicates that the state takeover and implementation of a multiple provider model intensified the longstanding difficulty among most of the low-performing "partnership" schools in retaining their teachers and in attracting fully certified teachers.

Historically, schools serving the poorest students in the District experience high levels of teacher turnover. Some of the departing teachers leave the District entirely; many teachers seek transfers to lower-poverty schools within the District once they have enough seniority. These schools also have higher rates of emergency-certified teachers who are not yet fully licensed to teach.

The problem has always been most severe at high-poverty middle schools, which were among the schools targeted for the interventions implemented this year.

Some administrators affected by the high turnover are not so sure it was a bad thing. Representatives of some EMOs say they welcome new teachers who embrace their reform model and add that young teachers can bring new energy to a school.

But ongoing turnover and teacher instability is a problem for schools. Schools with high turnover have a hard time implementing a coherent academic program since many staff have no history of working with each other. High turnover generally also implies the arrival of many inexperienced new teachers each year, presenting an annual mentoring challenge for senior teachers.

Partnership schools hit by turnover

Education experts in Philadelphia wondered if there would be a mass exodus of teachers from schools once the takeover list was announced back in April 2002. According to data provided by the School District of Philadelphia, these fears have been confirmed.

Between the spring and fall of 2002, an unusually large number of teachers left schools that were slated for management by external partners or that were ordered to become independent charter schools.

Teacher turnover rates more than doubled in schools newly managed by Edison (19 percent to 40 percent), Victory (17 percent to 40 percent), and Universal (14 percent to 36 percent). The Universal school turnover rate exceeded 40 percent when Vare Middle School, a transitional charter managed by Universal, was counted in the Universal category.

Seven of the 20 Edison-managed schools had over 40 percent of their teachers leave before the school year started. Stoddart-Fleisher Middle School and Comegys Elementary School both lost at least half of their full-time teaching staff.

Turnover rates from last year to the current school year were not as high in schools assisted by the University of Pennsylvania or Temple or that were targeted to be a District-run restructured school. These schools had turnover rates between 23 and 28 percent. Only four of the 21 restructured schools lost as many as 40 percent of their teachers.

None of the schools managed by Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania lost more than 35 percent of their teachers.

The lowest average turnover rate of any category of schools on the District's list of 86 low-scoring schools belonged to the 16 schools that, because of a history of improvement, were not assigned to an external manager.

These 16 schools (dubbed by some as "the sweet sixteen") were instead given extra per-pupil funds to further their efforts to raise student achievement. Their turnover rate was 22 percent, and their turnover rate increased less than the schools with outside managers.

Teacher turnover rates for all categories of school interventions during this first year of reform were still substantially higher than the districtwide turnover rate of 12 percent.

"Teachers left the schools on the low-performing list in higher numbers than usual, partly because of the uncertainty and confusion of the state takeover and the move to a diverse provider model," said Elizabeth Useem, director of research at the Philadelphia Education Fund. Useem has followed trends in staffing in Philadelphia schools over a number of years.

"In some of the partnership schools, turnover accelerated because of the transfer -- sometimes voluntary, sometimes forced -- of a well-regarded principal," Useem said.

"With the departure of the leader, teachers started looking elsewhere too. One school experienced a triple whammy -- a good principal left, the school was designated to become a charter, and an EMO with whom the teachers were unfamiliar was assigned to manage the school," she added. "It is not surprising that many veteran teachers transferred out. When strong principals stayed in place, most of their teachers stayed with them."

About the Author

The data for this article were provided by the School District of Philadelphia and were analyzed and summarized by Kurt Spiridakis, researcher at the Philadelphia Education Fund.  PEF is a local education fund committed to improving the quality of public education for all children in Philadelphia through direct student services, professional development for teachers, research, and advocacy. 

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