This guest post comes from Talmadge Nardi, a high school English teacher at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School in Boston, MA. Nardi is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum and has published articles in The Atlantic and Huffington Post.
This August, I return for my ninth year of teaching and my eighth year at a charter school in Boston, Massachusetts. In the past eight years, I have seen every one of my students pass the state English exam the first time. Last year, over 70 percent of them received advanced scores and my students ranked first in the state for the third time.
In 2015, the Massachusetts charter school system will celebrate its twentieth anniversary, and state officials have begun exploring whether we should allow more charter schools to open in the Commonwealth. However, this question is premature.
For me, the more immediate question to address is how can we create structures that respect and engage charter school teachers?
What Good Schools Do Right
Like many teachers, I love the day-to-day work at my school and feel respected in my daily interactions with students and faculty. And in this respect, what charter school teachers need from their schools is not very different from what all teachers need.
Good schools allow flexibility in the curriculum to help the lowest-performing students improve and to challenge the highest performing students. My principals have consistently hired intelligent teachers and given them the autonomy to do what they do best. They have allowed me to teach classes like Magical Realism and Dystopian Literature that reflect both my strengths and interests.
Good schools are dedicated to developing communities of talented professionals and teacher leaders. I have received consistent feedback from effective principals and offer professional development opportunities both inside and outside of the building. My principals continue to promote highly effective teachers to positions where they can mentor their colleagues. I have stayed in part due to leadership opportunities such as grade level chair, department chair and mentoring and induction program chair.
In addition, I receive support from other adults in the building (other great teachers, deans, psychologists, social workers, nurses, college counselors and support staff). The strong connections between adults allow teachers to focus class time on academic learning.
These practices are not unique to my school. Effective support for teaching works whether it takes place in a charter school or a traditional public school.
And yet, despite being a model of good practice in allowing teachers’ flexibility, developing communities of professionals, and supporting educators, my school loses over 80 percent of teachers before their eighth year. We are hardly alone: nationwide, charter schools turn over around 24 percent of their faculty each year.
So why the disconnect between support and turnover rates? And what can be done to improve those rates?
What the States Need to Do
Where charter schools differ from traditional schools the most is in their relationship to their state, and as a result, what charter teachers need from the state is unique to the charter system.
And much of what is needed are methods to harness teacher input.
Charter schools are no longer merely experimental training grounds for novice teachers. After nearly 20 years, the Massachusetts charter school community has produced a cohort of teachers who are well-versed in fostering innovation. And there are many teachers who would stay in their state charter systems through retirement, if the system did more to respect, reward, and harness their work as experienced professionals.
States who want to create a charter school career path should require charter schools to include teachers on charter school boards.
For example, my school’s board includes a former teacher and a former student, but no parents or current teachers–the two groups who have the most frequent daily contact with our students. Indeed, only six states currently require charter school boards to include teachers, and two states forbid teachers from sitting on governing boards. That absence, combined with the fact that most charter schools are not unionized, means that there is often no formal way for teachers to give feedback about administrative decisions.
States should also require charter schools to provide a mechanism for teachers to conduct yearly anonymous surveys of school climate.
Most charter school teachers have one-year contracts. That can make it difficult for teachers to make recommendations to administrators and the board of trustees, or to give honest feedback without fear of jeopardizing their jobs.
In addition, states should include charter school representatives on all state education boards and committees.
Decisions at the state level should consider the needs of all stakeholders. I currently sit on two state committees (the Massachusetts Teacher Cabinet and the Massachusetts Educational Personnel Advisory Council), but I am the only charter teacher on each of those committees. States should include charter teacher representatives in any policy decisions that affect charter schools.
Ultimately, I believe we can have a charter system that promotes innovation, produces high student achievement, and respects teacher voice. In fact, tapping into teachers’ expertise and working to keep good charter school teachers in the profession are some of the best strategies for building quality charter schools. If states need any more ideas about how to achieve this, I suggest that they turn to the people who know the system the best: charter teachers.