Susan Volbrecht

We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned applause no matter where they decide to work.Nobody wants a C-.

In particular, nobody wants a C- on the critical issue of keeping good teachers in the classroom. But that’s the grade Illinois got for “retaining effective teachers,” in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2013 State Policy Yearbook. Teacher retention is in fact a well-documented national crisis that negatively impacts students, especially those from low-income communities.  

Elevating the profession to keep the best teachers is a hot topic in education.  One low-cost, in fact free, way to do this is to change the way we talk about teachers and schools. This re-branding should start with an end to “shaming” the step-children of the education community: charter school teachers.

After seven years of working in a traditional district-run school, I made the decision to work at a charter this year. After being subject to the large-scale reduction-in-force at CPS last summer, I decided to try something new. The reaction from my friends and former colleagues was…well, mixed. Bad press and budget cuts have fueled the fire against any non-district-run institution.

Despite the metaphorical rotten fruit thrown daily in my direction, this was the right move for me. The environment is professional, my colleagues are dedicated, and the administration is inspiring. I realize as I’m writing this readers may respond with negativity and complaints, but here are the facts: We need good teachers, and there isn’t a place for everyone in the district. If someone makes the decision to teach and does it well, they have earned your applause no matter where they decide to work.

Here is my own list of “Frequently Asked Questions” about charters and my defense of those of us who choose to teach in one:

Q: According to The Charter Difference, a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, charter schools have a “significant under-enrollment of special needs students [that] may be discriminatory and warrants further investigation.” Aren’t they just taking all the “good kids” to boost their scores?

A: Not in my experience. To offer more information on this, see Illinois Network of Charter Schools President Andrew Broy’s article “Setting the Facts Straight on Charter Schools” (published in the Chicago Sun Times on August 7th, 2013). Broy reminds us that charter schools are public and “free and open to anyone who wishes to enroll, no matter a student’s neighborhood, family income, previous education, ethnicity or family status.” Another 2009 study by the RAND Corporation found that charter schools generally are not drawing the best students away from local traditional public schools. The previous test scores for students who transferred into charters were near or below-average (except for white students), and the racial makeup of charters was similar to that of the traditional schools the students had previously attended.

Q: How can any teacher agree to work for “union busters?”

A: Actually, we do have a right to unionize—in Chicago, we have Chicago ACTS Local 4343. At my orientation, administration from our network even encouraged us to sign up and invited representatives to get us registered.

Q: Isn’t it true that there are cases of high-level corruption in some charter networks?

A: Yes. But isn’t that also true in most districts? Do teachers make those decisions? Why punish them?

Q: Aren’t charter networks big business in disguise?

A: Some are. And some are not-for-profits, or are funded partly by competitive grants programs. In Illinois, charters can only be awarded to a non-profit, although the non-profit may then contract with a for-profit to run the school. Plus, many charters were started by teachers.

Q: Why should state funding go to charters when the district schools are undergoing budget cuts?

A: Again, not a teacher decision. I’d like to stress that there is simply not sufficient funding for all of us to work in the district, so all we can do is make sure that somehow, somewhere, we are in front of students doing the best we can.

Q: Aren’t teachers treated badly in charter schools?

A: Some charter schools may treat teachers badly. Some district schools treat teachers badly. At my school, teachers are consulted on every matter from content of professional development to curriculum. Performance and tangible outcomes are rewarded with job security (as opposed to quality-blind layoffs in the district). It’s almost like we have a tiny, renegade district that values teacher voice! Yes, this may not be everyone’s experience, but I resent the prevailing generalizations.

Q: Don’t charters have underqualified teachers?

A: Frankly, it looks like few of us teachers, anywhere, are well-prepared when we begin. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality Teacher Prep Review, “less than 10% of all rated programs earned 3 stars or more.” This study included 1,200 programs across the country. Shall we agree to let each individual teacher’s data speak for itself, and hope that new evaluation systems will help to improve us all?

So, if I have to operate as an outcast in order to keep a job that I love, then let the judgmental comments commence! Excellent teachers, I applaud you, no matter where you work. You are a treasure, and we need you to stay in this field. Ignore the non-productive, hurtful, and prejudiced statements that will surely follow us throughout our careers. District colleagues and general public, I urge you to use a new lens to view all educators, one informed by research. Create a world in which every teacher is given a fair chance to show what they can do.

Susan Volbrecht is an eighth-year teacher on the South Side of Chicago. She is an alumni of the Chicago Teaching Fellows and the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship. She currently works as an academic interventionist at a charter school.

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