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Amid growth of Michigan charter schools, teachers often less experienced
The Detroit News
By: Jemmifer Chambers
September 19, 2013

It was January — the middle of the school year — when Danielle Haelewyn stepped into Trillium Academy to begin her first year of teaching.

Haelewyn, 24, was given a class of seventh grade students who lost their permanent teacher to a medical leave in the fall. For the previous eight weeks, substitute teachers had been running the class in the Taylor charter school.

Now, fresh out of college, it was Haelewyn’s turn.

“It was a party. That’s how it was. These kids were over it,” Haelewyn said. “It was a little messy. Students weren’t used to turning homework in on time. The grades weren’t updated.”

But within weeks Haelewyn turned the classroom around. She instituted a routine, outlined expectations and got parents on board. Her first parent-teacher conference had 100 percent participation. The beginner teacher survived the experience and this month is in her second year at the school.

For the 131,000 students attending Michigan’s 298 charter schools, novice teachers like Haelewyn are the norm. They also are part of a growing charter school movement where short teaching careers — two to four years — are by choice.

Teachers at Michigan charter schools average three years of experience — a stark contrast to traditional public school teachers who average 11 years of classroom experience.

According to data for the 2011-12 school year from the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, 31 percent of teachers in charter schools have taught for less than one year. Three percent of traditional public school teachers have taught for less than one year.

At the same time, 25 percent of teachers in traditional public schools have taught for 11-15 years. Only 4 percent of teachers in charter schools have that same level of experience.

Shortened teaching careers happen for a variety of reasons, but educators say they range from easy mobility on the part of younger teachers to burnout at challenging charter schools to the arrival of Teach For America, where college graduates are embedded into low-achieving schools for two years.

This shortage of experience inside Michigan’s charter school network comes at a time when the number of charter schools is on the rise and the number of children who attend them is increasing.

In the 2002-03 school year, Michigan had 189 charter schools and about 69,000 students. Today, the state has 298 charter schools, 131,000 students and about 6,000 teachers, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

Charter schools are likely to be doing most of the hiring in Michigan over the next few years as more schools open in response to the state’s cap on charter schools being lifted.

The hiring will mostly involve inexperienced teachers, one of the main criticisms of charter schools. But the number of years of experience for any individual teacher tells you nothing about how good he or she is, said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest, a statewide education policy and advocacy organization.

“That said, like other professionals, no teacher is as good in her first year on the job as she eventually will be as she improves her craft,” Arellano said.

While many novice teachers do an excellent job helping their students learn, research says teachers tend to get better with more experience, Arellano said.

“This means that a teaching force dominated by brand-new teachers would probably have a weaker impact on student learning than a teaching force dominated by teachers with at least a few years of experience,” she said.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state association for charter schools, is working with teachers at 20 charter schools in Metro Detroit on a federal grant that looks at whether performance-based pay, which links student achievement to educator compensation, works in under-performing schools.

In the 20 schools, the average length of employment for teachers is 3.6 years. Nearly 44 percent of the teachers had been on the job for three years or less, 26 percent on the job for up to five years and 7.8 percent on the job 10 years or more.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the association, said new charter schools tend to attract candidates with less experience or new to the profession because those are the people looking for jobs. Teachers tend to stay at charter schools for their flexibility, autonomy and abundant professional development, Quisenberry said.

“We don’t often find that quality teaching is attached to age or tenure. Schools are looking for quality teachers,” Quisenberry said. “We are starting to see if you focus on quality, a healthy mix of teachers may be some new and some older. It’s an environment where the team at the school is the focus.”

Teach For America Detroit has placed hundreds of high-achieving college grads into low-achieving K-12 schools in Metro Detroit for two years. Of the 350 recruits at work today, 60 percent are in charter schools, the other 40 in traditional public schools, said Don Jordan, spokesman for TFA Detroit.

“Teachers can do some intense work and leave. It’s OK. You can contribute to kids by investing yourself in a short period of time,” Quisenberry said.

Mentoring and peer training programs are in place at many charter schools so new teachers get support and the chance to make a longer career of teaching.

Peter Middleton has been an art teacher at a charter in the Black River Public School in Holland for 12 years.

Middleton said he sees a lot of teachers leave the profession after just a few years of teaching. Reasons range from a return to graduate school, to opportunities at museums to a spouse’s career change. It also stems from burnout.

“I had a teacher, and she was a great teacher, great credentials. By the end of the first year she was fried,” he said. “She became unglued in one year. It was time management issues.”

He also sees young teachers connecting with students in a way that a veteran teacher could not. They are often tech savvy, full of fresh ideas and in tune with young people.

“We have this new teacher who is bringing their best game to the show. They can offer new and fresh perspective. They give it their best shot,” he said. “We have a lot of teachers who inspire young people.”
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