Do Charter Schools Keep Their Best Teachers and Improve Quality? Retention and Rewards for Teachers in New Orleans

New Orleans’ all-charter school system succeeds in removing low-performing teachers, but it struggles to replace them with high-performing ones.

Cover of the REACH policy brief on retention and rewards for teachers in New Orleans
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Cover of the REACH technical report on retention and rewards for teachers in New Orleans
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Teachers are widely considered the most important factor in school success. However, schools often struggle to attract and retain high-performing teachers and to develop or remove low-performing ones. In this study, we consider whether this is true in New Orleans where almost all schools are charters with flexibility over personnel policies and practices, and where schools compete against one another and face pressure to improve.

Specifically, we compared New Orleans to similar neighboring districts from 2010 to 2015, using student test score growth to measure teacher performance. We draw the following conclusions:

  • Teacher retention is more closely related to teacher performance in New Orleans than in traditional public school districts. Lower performing teachers in New Orleans are 2.5 times more likely to leave their school than high-performing teachers, compared with only 1.9 times in similar neighboring districts.
  • The stronger link between retention and performance might imply that teacher quality would improve faster in New Orleans than in similar districts. However, this is not the case. The difference in average teacher performance between New Orleans and comparison districts remained essentially unchanged between 2010 and 2015. This is apparently because of the larger share of new teachers in New Orleans, whose lower quality roughly offsets the city’s advantages in retaining higher performing teachers.
  • The stronger retention-performance link in New Orleans is somewhat related to financial rewards, though not in a way that is likely to increase the overall quality of teaching. We find that higher performing teachers only receive pay increases when they switch schools, which may increase teacher turnover. High-performing teachers do not receive raises for performance when they stay in the same school.

These findings highlight the complexities of policies intended to increase the quality of teaching. Increased teacher accountability might improve teacher performance, but it also creates more job uncertainty for teachers and seems to give them less autonomy over their day-to-day work. This can affect the number and types of teachers who seek to work in charter schools and could push teachers of all performance levels to exit the profession or transfer to other schools. Given that teaching experience positively affects student achievement, this trade-off is problematic. Indeed, even with New Orleans’ advantages in retaining quality teachers and in improving teacher quality, it will likely be difficult for the city’s schools to improve over time with a high rate of teacher turnover and, resulting, low average teacher experience levels.

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