/  By  / 

Are charter schools youth cults?

favicon We all know that charter schools tend to have younger, less experienced teachers than their traditional counterparts. And there are pros and cons to that.

But this morning, I read an article in the New York Times that left a pit in my stomach. In the piece, “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice,” reporter Motoko Rich concludes that charter schools foster an environment whereby it’s acceptable, and even welcomed, for teachers to stay in the classroom for a very short time before moving up to become an administrator or pursuing a more lucrative, prestigious profession.

Ms. Rich calls charter schools “youth cults.” That’s a provocative statement.

I’ve worked in charter schools for 14 out of my 17 years of teaching, so I understand their demands. In my 20s, I routinely worked 70 to 80 hours a week. At my school in San Francisco, we were young, and sometimes, we were tired. But rather than encouraging teachers to leave after a couple years, our school talked about sustainability. It’s a good thing, we believed, for students to have teachers with full lives, including families and outside interests. It’s a good thing for students to have teachers from diverse backgrounds. As a result, our school made changes, including adopting a salary schedule to encourage teachers to stick around for more than five years.

Now I’m learning that my experience was a rare one. In the past few years, big and powerful charter school networks have grown stronger. As a result, they no longer have to hide the truth. Check out what Jennifer Hines, a senior administrator of a Houston-based charter network, said:

There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.

On the one hand, it’s comforting that there is truth-telling. On the other, as someone who taught for a long time and who still believes in the importance of the classroom teacher, I think it’s hugely bothersome. Also annoying: her language, which comes across across to me as too careful (e.g., “certain comfort level,” “who are perhaps,” “stay forever”). That’s a calculating sentence.

In the article, Ms. Rich goes on to profile a 24-year-old teacher, Tyler Dowdy, who is in his third year and is already looking for the next new thing. My first reaction was, That doesn’t seem to be a problem. My first school (not a charter school) made me a leader in my second month. But then came this quotation at the end:

I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing and always moving onto something bigger and better.

All I have to say is, Ugh, ugh, ugh. Like, a major ugh. There is so much wrong with that quotation. (Ms. Rich is likely very pleased to have gotten it.) There is so much pretension, so much privilege, and so much condescension in that statement.

Nonetheless, I can’t entirely blame Mr. Dowdy. He’s just a young teacher who is hard-working and smart and maybe unaware of the complexity of public schooling. That’s because he’s worked at a school with an expectation that matches his own.

(Yes, I just sounded old and curmudgeonly and jaded there! Sorry about that.)

Rather, maybe the problem is not with young people who want to teach for a few years and then become principals or doctors. As Ms. Rich suggests, perhaps the problem is with charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America, which “churn out” teachers, according to charter school detractor Diane Ravitch.

But even if that’s true, I’m not sure what the answer is. There’s too much of an either-or dialogue going on: either we stick entirely with the public school system, along with all of its faults, or we move toward more charter schools, along with their faults. I do wonder why we can’t figure out something somewhere in the middle that meets the needs of more young people.

What do you think? favicon


  1. Laura Hawkins

    That’s crazy! I think it’s pretty clear that teachers who stick around (like yourself) become Better Teachers. They might need to work fewer hours (less than that 70-80 I also worked in my 20s) as they find partners or have children, but those hours have a much higher return for students. Administrators who create a culture of short careers are then pretty clearly short-changing students as well as contributing to a national culture that undervalues teachers and the skills they acquire after years.

  2. Heidi

    To me, “a certain comfort level” means not fully investing in the school or being a teacher. Young scholars do not need teachers who are already planning to leave. Intentions are powerful.

  3. Angela Gruwell

    That is a scary train of thought. Teaching is an art… and we develop our practice over years of work with colleagues, students, and families. If you’re so focused on the next step, are you truly devoting yourself to what’s most important… the students in front of you?

  4. Dr Geoff

    In the sense of being fashionable or popular, it could be argued that this is not so much a problem? However, when it veers towards magical thinking that undermines the professionalization of, and solidarity among educators, I get more nervous. There is also a problem of cults of personality within some organizations, but organizations tend to have many potential problems (including stagnation and instrumental decision making just to name a couple off the top of my head…).

    I was toying with an analysis of the narrative of ‘Teach First’, which is the UK’s TfA (and on which I have been working as a university based subject tutor), and I came up with this thought, which might also be relevant here: “… the educational ‘reforms’ that arose during the nineties and the early 2000s in the US are essentially not progressive but rather are conservative policy that seek to exploit a real social problem for the status and power of the participants and backers of the ‘reform’ movement.” On reflection perhaps a bit cynical, but there you go. Also, it may be that those who stay in teaching do so because they are the good teachers? You and Hawkins are my data points for that conjecture ;D


  5. iseroma

    Great thoughts, everyone! They’re pushing my thinking. I wonder: On average, do you think there is a “sweet spot” in a teacher’s career — sort of like a baseball player? If so, when do you think it is — between years 5 and 10, say, or later on, like between years 15-25?

    And if there is something like a “teacher’s prime years,” should schools take that into account when hiring? If a school hires me, they’ll get somebody solid but expensive. You could hire two first-year teachers in my place.

    My hunch is that some schools hire young teachers because they honestly think it’s a better investment. (And that’s scary to me.) Wondering what you all (and new commenters!) think about this.

Please share your brilliant insights!