The Gulen Charter School Teacher Supply Problem


There’s been some increased interest in recent months in what are often referred to as Gulen Charter Schools, or those schools affiliated with Fethullah Gulen. I’ve tried to stay off of this topic for the most part because I don’t like to write about “conspiracy theories” or even potentially inflammatory religious/cultural issues – at least on this blog.  Here are a few recent video clips/new stories:

From Ohio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qDbELO12uo

From 60 Minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4OtHpUCqy0&feature=related

New York Times article on Texas Gulen Schools: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/education/07charter.html

There are also a handful of websites that provide additional highly critical information on these schools.

What has intrigued me when I’ve watched these news clips and when I’ve read other news stories, is that when these schools’ leaders are challenged as to why they hire so many teachers on visas from Turkey, their standard response is that there just aren’t enough qualified applicants for their schools from U.S. resident citizens.

Yes, teacher supply can be an issue, especially in math and science. And economic research on the topic suggests that wages – especially the competitiveness of wages with other career alternatives – may play a role. See this report for a related analysis of teacher wages in the State of Washington (& relative competitiveness of Science/Math teacher wages)

Now, I’ve been conducting several analyses of teacher salary structure over time, trying to see how charter schools pay their teachers compared to other charter schools and public districts. It’s really important to understand that wages, wage growth expectations and job security expectations all may have significant influence on the supply of quality applicants for teaching positions.

It strikes me, after looking at salary structure data on Gulen schools that therein lies the problem.

Check this out. First, there’s the graph I made for our recent report on charter school expenditures. This graph appears in an appendix to the report, and represents exploratory analysis of what’s behind some of the spending differences between charter schools and between charters and public districts.

For this graph and a following graph on NJ Gulen schools, I use teacher level data from multiple years to estimate a model of teacher salaries as a function of experience and degree level. Then I project out the predicted salary for teachers at each experience level holding degree levels constant. This gives me a picture of how teacher wages compare between schools for comparably educated teachers and at different experience levels.

Harmony (Cosmos/Gulen) schools in Texas are relatively low spending schools and have particularly low labor expenses. Notably, this network of Texas charter schools is large enough to drag down average spending and average labor costs for charters statewide.

In the Houston area in particular, not only do the Gulen schools pay very low starting salaries, but salaries don’t appear to grow over the first few years of experience. Notably, the Harmony/Cosmos/Gulen schools really don’t have any teachers with more than a few years of experience. Now, this could be in part because no-one would really want to stick around if there’s no outlook for wage growth over time, or because no-one who would have intended to stick around ever applied to begin with, leading the schools to make extensive use of temporary imported staff.

Figure 1. Houston Area Wages for Charter & District Schools

Source: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/spending-major-charter

Figure 2 through Figure 4 show the average school level wages for teachers in Texas district and charter schools in Houston and Austin. Notably, Harmony schools have very low average experience levels and also have very low average salaries. They also have low average salaries even given their low average experience levels. Is it any wonder they suffer a teacher supply problem? Especially with a curricular emphasis on math and science? And especially in tech heavy urban centers.

Figure 2. Houston at all experience levels

Figure 3. Houston for teachers w/less than 5 years

Figure 4. Austin at all experience levels

Figure 5. Austin for teachers w/less than 5 years

Now, this salary structure anomaly for Gulen affiliated schools in Texas really isn’t just a Texas thing. That’s what struck me, and eventually led me to write this post – which at this point is still incomplete. Here’s what Gulen salaries look like in New Jersey, when compared with other charter schools and when compared with three major urban districts. Now, New Jersey’s urban districts have a quirky salary structure that I could quite honestly do without. As described by one NJ charter school leader, the urban districts in NJ often have a “hockey stick” salary schedule that stays relatively flat for the first several years/steps and then jumps way up around the 13th year. That actually permits some charter schools to gain a recruitment/retention edge by scaling up salaries more quickly on the front end. Notably, these charter schools to the best of my knowledge are not recruiting large shares of temporary staff from foreign countries!

But the Gulen affiliated schools – in this case Paterson Science and Technology and Central Jersey College Prep – have a strikingly similar compensation strategy to Harmony schools in Texas, and quite different from other major charter schools (notably, there are other minor charter schools that pay quite poorly, similar to the Gulen schools at the front end, but with more growth in pay for accumulated experience).  Again, one might expect these LOW and FLAT salaries to be a major barrier to generating a supply of high quality domestic applicants.

Figure 6. New Jersey Charter and District Salaries

Data Source: Based on regression model estimated to salary data from annual NJ fall staffing file. Salaries estimated as a function of a) total experience, b) degree level, c) year (3years of data included, 2008 to 2010) and d) FTE status.

In a sense, these Gulen salary structures and claims of insufficient teacher supply especially in math and science may be providing us with some insights as to what happens when we choose to pay teachers so poorly and when we strip them of any expectation of increased wages with experience. Maybe they do really have a domestic teacher supply problem. But their solution to that problem is not a scalable solution for American public schooling at large (cheap imported and temporary labor).

Quite honestly, any school that persists in offering this low a wage with no growth over time, while complaining about lack of supply of worthy U.S. applicants really isn’t even trying! Clearly, they are operating exactly how they want to operate – and have little if any interest in attracting the best and brightest science and math graduates from the U.S.

While it may be the case that some of these schools are producing reasonable average outcomes – and doing so at substantially reduced labor costs – this is clearly a model with serious limitations to its scalability. Further, there exist significant concerns that much of the apparent “high” performance in these schools is a function of student selection & attrition. (see also: http://www.texastribune.org/texas-education/texas-education-agency/what-drives-high-achievement-at-harmony-charters-/)

Just pondering. More to come, no doubt. Cheers!

For more on salary competitiveness and teacher quality/supply, see: http://www.shankerinstitute.org/images/doesmoneymatter_final.pdf

Note: There is also some evidence, like this: http://www.charterschoolwatchdog.com/tuzuk—a-contract-to-steal.html which suggests that for Turkish teachers, Gulen schools receive a sizable kickback on the salaries and levy numerous fees against those salaries. That would, of course, generate a substantial amount of money for the Gulen organization.  My Texas teacher level data set has over 800 teachers in Harmony schools in 2009-10, with cumulative reported base salaries near $30million. KIPP, Yes Prep and IDEA all have less than half of that number.  I’d appreciate any documentation readers might have regarding current contractual agreements, fees, etc. for non-U.S. employees of these schools. Thanks!

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7 Comments

  1. The Gulen Movement and it’s manipulation of Education, media, politics, businesses, etc., is no conspiracy theory. They (aka Hizmet / Cemaat) employ the same methods worldwide. In Turkey where they started they have already taken over the judicary system, police and now working on the military. Why do you think these charter schools operated / managed by known members of Hizmet try to get on military bases and start ROTC programs?
    Davis Monson AFB in Arizona houses Sonoran Science Academy, they failed to get a school on a base in Hawaii (Mokapu Stem School) and in Illinois.
    If they are allowed to continue, they will take over the entire education system and it’s financing. Your article left out many key components of their “creative financing”
    This group is greedy and knows how to sniff out federal funds, bond financing and dip into state facility funding intended for traditional public schools.
    In Texas, they have joined the Texas Charter Association in a lawsuit against the state to dip into this multi – million dollar fund. They also were approved last year for $90 million bond financing. and just recently defaulted on a loan with Wells Fargo ($19 million) at their now denied renewal Fulton Science Academy (GA)
    Follow the money and learn how they launder it through their various owned businesses that service the schools: Construction companies, janitorial, cateriing. etc., Then where the extra money is wired to?
    Your article also left out the fact that many of these teachers tuzuk (donate) over 40% of their salary back to the Movement via the many layers of Gulen NGOs around each school. The USA is divided into 5 regions and there is a money collector in each region. Many of these so-called teachers cannot speak English and are collecting paychecks and never see the inside of the school. But are at the local university on our dime collecting advance degrees. Check out the now closed Gulen School in LA (Abramson Math and Science) learn how the Turkish teachers never showed up to the classroom.
    They are not interested in making our students good citizens or becoming academically advanced. The Gulen Movement’s main purpose is to spread Turkish Culture, grow Turkish sympathizers and share of power. Nothing more.
    Besides Turkey is at the bottom of worldwide rankings in education.

    Lastly, none of the web sites about the Gulen schools is without citing of newspaper links, government data on education or facts. They are not made up or contrived reports. The Gulen Movement is savvy at marketing, public relations and advertising. They label their awards (mostly won at Gulenists sponsored or owned events) they falsely portray the schools as award winning or as having a “waiting list” that is laughingly inflated (30,000) to date they have not allowed a third party to audit and deny or confirm these so-called waiting lists.

    I can tell you over the last 3 years of researching this group and speaking with countless parents and teachers from these schools…no parent has had to wait to get their child into any of these schools.

    http://www.gulencharterschools.weebly.com
    http://www.gulencharterschoolsusa.blogspot.com
    http://www.charterschoolwatchdog.com
    http://www.turkishinvitations.weebly.com
    http://www.charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com

  2. My general experience is that any employer who employs primarily foreign nationals “because they have no qualified US applicants” either wants it that way or is a really unpleasant workplace for a US-born worker.

  3. You can come recruit me to teach math and science and I will work cheap! Thirty-five years experience, AP Calc, AP Physics, coaching experience and administrative experience. Oh, if it matters, I am an American citizen.

    1. All well and good, and I suspect there are openings somewhere. But I would also suggest that if your credentials are as you describe (assuming you’re not just being sarcastic?) you can probably find a better compensation package either at “other” charters or traditional publics… and likely at private independents (though not private religious schools).

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