One to Watch: Foundation Academies

Last fall, Foundation Academies, a small but growing charter organization in Trenton, NJ, faced a wake-up call.

There was much to celebrate. Students in its middle school were learning, with eighth-grade students outscoring city and state averages in reading, math and science after only a few years at Foundation. Parents were enthusiastic: the admissions waiting list grew by double-digits every year. A second school, a new high school, was just about to start its second year.

But the fast pace of progress since its founding in 2007, accelerated by starting a whole new school, had clearly taken a toll. The start-up had always seen relatively high levels of teacher turnover, losing one third or more of teachers each year. But from June to October 2012, there was a mass exodus: Foundation lost nearly half of its teachers in those few short months.

The organization’s leaders knew that in order to succeed, they needed to keep their strongest teachers in the classroom. They asked us to help figure out why teachers were leaving, and what they could do to encourage them to stay.

Often, assumptions about what influences teachers ping-pong between two extremes: either they are selfless missionaries who never think about pay or working conditions, or else they are timecard-punching drones just in it for summer vacation. Obviously neither of those extremes describe actual teachers, but it is true that teachers—and in particular, great teachers—are influenced both by tangible rewards like compensation and intangibles like the opportunity to work with like-minded colleagues and set the sort of high standards that can help students soar.

In our recent papers Greenhouse Schools and The Irreplaceables, we had found a strong connection between retention and what we call “instructional culture”—environments where teachers share clear, high standards for instruction, and where principals help define and support that vision. Schools with strong cultures keep more of their best teachers and their students learn more, earning higher scores in math and reading.

So we surveyed Foundation’s teachers to measure their schools’ instructional culture, and also looked at pay scales for both traditional public schools and other charters in Trenton and Philadelphia, the other places teachers are likely to work locally. Teachers told us that instructional culture was strong: Foundation was crystal clear about expectations and deeply committed to developing teachers. But we found that pay was not competitive—especially when taking longer school days and years into account, and especially for teachers with more experience.

Foundation wanted to ensure that its top-performing teachers would have the opportunity to quickly out-earn what they could make elsewhere. So leaders quickly adopted a new compensation structure that links teacher pay to performance, rather than basing salaries on experience alone. It’s a very different approach from the traditional steps-and-lanes compensation model, which is still in use almost everywhere, including in many charter schools. Now outstanding teachers could make as much as $86,000 in six years—a milestone it could take 20 years to reach under other systems, if at all.

Teachers have one of four titles—novice, career, advanced or master—based on their performance and experience. Each title corresponds to a different salary band, with total pay ranging from about $50,000 to about $100,000. In addition, they can earn annual raises based on their evaluation ratings, which also qualify them for promotions into a the next salary band.

It hasn’t been easy—even with Foundation’s relatively small size, recalibrating pay rates and awarding raises to every single teacher at once was a heavy lift. Putting more resources into teachers’ salaries also required some careful budgeting elsewhere. The organization drew from hard-won budget surpluses, which will also require either delaying or fundraising for future expansion. In addition, though teachers are excited for the opportunity to earn more, some have regarded the new system with some skepticism. Change, even positive change, is always difficult to communicate and manage.

Foundation’s leadership deserves a lot of credit for making these hard choices. Rather than assuming past success guaranteed future success, they have taken risks to ensure they can better retain their top talent. The new system is now in place, and we’re eager to see it in action. The early evidence is positive: two-thirds of Foundation teachers are on track to return next year, back in line with historical averages. We’ll also be checking back in with teachers once they’ve had an opportunity to see first-hand what a difference this system will make for their wallets.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

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