Chait Challenge

Robin Chait weighs-in with a guest-post about human capital and high challenge schools:

Two recent articles about the Amistad and KIPP highlight a potential challenge in scaling up these two very promising models for improving performance in urban schools: finding and keeping a crew of talented and dedicated teachers and staff.

Amistad and KIPP academies are two of the few, recent charter school models to crop up that have had success with an urban, low income, high minority, population. Yet a recent article about KIPP by Jay Matthews in the Washington Post includes a story of a school that had to withdraw its KIPP affiliation after failing to produce the results expected of KIPP schools. One of the primary reasons the school failed, according to the article, was its inability to attract enough high quality teachers.

Outstanding faculty are essential to the efficacy of these models that rely on high expectations, high quality instruction, and extended learning time. These teachers and staff must be willing to work longer hours than other teachers and deal with the emotional stress of working with a high poverty population for pay that is often similar to (or less than) teachers working fewer hours in less stressful environments.

In thinking about whether it’s possible to expand these models significantly in urban districts, it remains to be seen whether these schools can attract enough teachers and staff who are willing to make this same commitment and sacrifice.

But to address their human capital challenge perhaps these and other similar charter and non-charter public schools will just have to develop recruitment and retention strategies that reflect the reality of today’s labor market for teachers. Urban districts have high teacher turnover for many reasons including ineffective compensation and difficult working conditions. While working to improve teacher retention, these schools could also develop programs that are designed to deal with the reality of high teacher turnover by recruiting high quality candidates to work for short periods of time.

The programs could be modeled after programs like Teach for America and DC or NYC Teaching Fellows—they would recruit and train high-quality candidates with the understanding that they would probably only teach for a short period of time. The programs could test a number of training models to figure out how to get teaching candidates up to speed as quickly as possible in order to benefit most from their short tenure. And of course, veteran teachers would have to play a greater leadership role in such schools. But that’s good for them because it opens up more professional and leadership opportunities that do not mean a full-time departure from the classroom.

The schools could also use flexible compensation tools to attract high quality recruits for these short-term programs. Charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools to try out new approaches to teacher compensation, and a recent report by Julie Kowal, Emily Ayscue Hassel, and Bryan C. Hassel, commissioned by the Center for American Progress, finds that they take advantage of this flexibility. The report finds that charter and private schools use compensation as a tool to attract the talent they need — for instance, by paying teachers more in hard-to-staff subject areas, tying pay to performance, and using pay to attract outstanding recruits. Urban charter schools could test a number of these approaches to compensation to attract top candidates and motivate them to excel.

In an ideal world, urban schools would be able to pay top dollar to recruit committed, high-quality candidates and keep them for many years. However, given reality and limited resources, short term recruitment and training programs targeted to specific areas of need may be a good option. If you cannot stop it from raining, you can at least develop better umbrellas.

Robin Chait is an education consultant in Washington, D.C.

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