Teacher Accountability in Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that operate with a great deal of autonomy, free from many of the regulations of traditional public schools. One difference is that teachers in charter schools generally have less job security – by design. They have no tenure, work under year-to-year contracts and risk dismissal if they fail to contribute to student achievement as judged by the school. In return, however, they usually have more teaching flexibility, less paperwork and participate more fully in decision making. If Arizona's charter school experience is typical, they also often earn more than their public school counterparts.

Because of their autonomy, charter schools' personnel policies, including salary administration, differ greatly among schools and among states, and only meager information is available nationwide. More data are available about Arizona than any other state, thanks to an extensive charter school survey by the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona public policy research institute. Arizona, a stronghold of the charter school movement with 271 charter schools in operation and a sympathetic state administration, is in its fourth year of charter school experience.

Determining Teacher Quality. According to research, the single most important factor in student learning improvement is teacher quality. For example, William Sanders of the University of Tennessee has found that teacher quality can add as many as 50 percentile points to student test scores.

The traditional public school method of measuring teacher quality has been whether or not the teacher holds a bachelor's degree in education and is certified as a teacher. But charter schools consider increased student performance to be the most important measurement. Some hire only certified teachers, but overall only about 60 percent of charter school teachers in Arizona hold teaching certificates. Comparisons based on 1997 and 1998 results on the Stanford 9 tests in mathematics, reading and language skills found that quality teachers might – or might not – be certified.

Of charter schools demonstrating gains in all three subject areas from 1997 to 1998, 73 percent hired only certified teachers. Of those ex-periencing losses in all three subject areas, 85 percent hired only certified teachers.

Historically, once a public school is in business, it is in business forever. Not so for charter schools. Consequently, charter school operators consider their risks when they decide whom to hire, the terms of employment and how to evaluate each teacher's performance. Many teachers accept jobs in traditional public schools because there are no risks. By contrast, charter school teachers often have job options other than teaching because they have subject matter expertise, are willing to take risks and have non-teaching work experience. For example, an engineer can work for Intel or teach physics in a charter school. But without a teaching credential, that engineer cannot teach in a traditional public school.

The advantage of being able to hire professionals without teaching certificates is illustrated by a college preparatory charter school in Arizona that has teachers with graduate degrees in biology, literature and foreign languages from Johns Hopkins, St. John's College, Notre Dame and the University of Chicago.

Higher Pay for Teachers. One reason charter schools can hire this caliber of teacher is that, in Arizona, beginning charter school teachers earn an average of 6 percent more than beginning teachers in traditional public schools. In public schools there is a specific entry salary for every level of education attainment; in other words, there is not much flexibility in pay. As the figure shows:

  • The salaries for newly hired teachers in Arizona public schools vary over a range of about $8,000, with differences depending exclusively on years of teaching experience (e.g., they may have experience as a substitute teacher) and the number of credits beyond a bachelor's degree.
  • By contrast, the salaries for newly hired teachers in the state's charter schools vary over a range of about $21,000, with differences depending on such criteria as subject matter expertise, experience, education and other opportunities.

Most established charter schools (46 are in their fourth year of operation) look at the traditional public school salary schedule and then set their salary schedules 5 percent higher. (Merit pay and pay for special skills raise the overall average to 6 percent higher.) One charter school operator summarized the policy toward teachers thus: "A teacher should be paid a professional salary, the market should determine that level, and we should be able to offer that salary to a teacher. If the teacher is not performing at that salary level, the contract should not be renewed."

Performance Incentives. Contract terms differ drastically between charter and traditional schools. An examination of charter school teacher contracts in Arizona failed to find any that is longer than one year. Charter school teachers are reviewed every year, and their jobs are not guaranteed from year to year unless they perform well (as measured by student learning advancement). By contrast, in most states teachers in traditional schools receive tenure in three to five years and have a job as long as they want one regardless of their performance or that of their students.

Performance incentives are built into many charter school teacher contracts. A survey of a majority of the Arizona schools found 16 percent with student performance incentives. This means a teacher gets a bonus only if students achieve at a certain level or gain a certain percent in test scores. In addition:

  • In 58 percent of the schools, teacher contract renewal is subject to similar performance-based incentives.
  • Additionally, about 10 percent base contract renewals on student attendance/recruitment and parent satisfaction.
  • In a few charter schools that are part of corporations, teachers are subject to the same employee review process as other corporate employees.

Attracting Teachers. Are teachers motivated or frightened by accountability and performance-based incentives? Apparently the former, since amid what has been described by some as a nationwide education crisis created by a lack of certified teachers, one Arizona charter school recently received applications from 200 qualified candidates for fewer than 10 teaching jobs. This phenomenon is not uncommon in charter schools. A charter school administrator of an International Baccalaureate program, which offers advanced studies for high school students, proclaims the teaching positions at that school are "plum jobs that represent the ultimate in accountability – students pass the exams, or the teachers don't have jobs! This is all the incentive we need to get and keep the most qualified teachers."

This Brief Analysis was prepared by Dr. Lewis Solomon, Senior Fellow at the Goldwater Institute's Center for Market-Based Education, and Mary Gifford, director of the center and vice president of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.