I received this message from a former colleague in an email this morning. "Did you see 60 minutes last night? A school is paying teachers $125,000 per year and their student score are NOT going up!"
The title of the 60 minutes segment was "NYC charter school's $125,000 experiment: Does a non-unionized school that pays teachers a higher salary get better results?"
Would teachers be willing to give up tenure and job security for a chance to earn a lot more money? "There's a school in New York City that's trying to prove just that. It's a bold new experiment in public education called "TEP," which stands for The Equity Project, a charter school that is publicly funded but privately run. It's offering its teachers $125,000 a year - more than double the national average." Zeke Vanderhoek is TEP's founder and principal.
"TEP aims to prove that attracting the best and brightest teachers and holding them accountable for results is the essential ingredient to a school's success. Could this school become a national model for the future of public education? That's the $125,000 question."
TEP students are mostly African American and Hispanic, and almost all of them come from poor families. More than two-thirds of the students are reading below grade level when they get to TEP." There are currently 247 fifth and sixth graders and 15 teachers. That is a ratio of 16.5 students for every teacher.
Why pay teachers $125,000 a year?
"Because they're worth it, because teachers are the key, and if we can pay them this with the existing dollars, why aren't we doing it?" Vanderhoek replied.
"I don't think paying people more makes them a better teacher. You take a mediocre teacher, you double their salary, nothing's gonna change. So, if you wanna attract and retain talent, you have to pay for it. And that is ultimately how student achievement will be impacted," he added."
How are TEP teachers different?
According to the principal, "They're not. There are great teachers in almost every public school in the city. The difference is that they are often the exception, not the rule. So what we're trying to do is build a school where every teacher is a great teacher."
Teachers must "produce some evidence that the students in their classrooms move from point A to point B," Vanderhoek explained. "In order for students to demonstrate that growth, they have to be into it. And so the teacher has to be able to engage students."
Closing the Achievement Gap
According to 60 Minutes, "the school's challenge is one that has bedeviled American educators for decades: how to get poor, minority, inner city kids to achieve at the same levels as kids from more affluent neighborhoods."
"The difference between a great teacher and a mediocre or poor teacher is several grade levels of achievement in a given year," Vanderhoek replied. "A school that focuses all of its energy and its resources on fantastic teaching can bridge the achievement gap."
Where does the money come from?
"There are no state-of-the-art facilities - classes take place in trailers. And the money that would go to pay for an assistant principal, reading specialist and other staff goes into teachers' salaries. But that means the teachers have to do those jobs as well."
Note: The report never indicated if the school requires students to apply, nor did the report indicate if the school served special education or ELL students.
Teachers are continuously evaluated by the principal and by each other.
Expectations of Teachers
According to one teacher, "The greatest benefit of working at TEP is that it's not okay to just be okay. And every lesson does need to be laser focused and super sharp so that you can get the best outcomes from it."
"They actually care if we succeed and pass college."
"In my old school, I didn't really get that much attention and help with my class work, so I didn't do as well. Here, I'm getting As and Bs because the teachers stay on top of you and they actually help you when you need help," another said.
Teachers on Teaching
"You just have to believe in the kids. And I know that they can learn. And if there's a roadblock, if they're not getting it you know, look at me (teacher) first."
Tenure: If you have a pulse
Most charter schools like TEP are not unionized and don't offer teachers tenure.
"The idea that somebody could have a job for life no matter how they perform is not good for people in that job, much less for the students who have to suffer if that individual has gone downhill," Vanderhook said.
Asked if he thinks tenure should be abolished in general, Vanderhoek said, "Yes."
"If you have a pulse, you get tenure," former NYC Superintendent, Joel Klein said.
Can TEP be scaled up?
Klein says that traditional public schools can't follow the TEP model. Vanderhoek is able to make personnel decisions based on performance, but most schools can't because of tenure.
"It's virtually impossible to terminate an incompetent teacher. The process is so cumbersome that very few people will try. And so, as a result, we virtually get rid of no one for poor performance in the city," Klein said.
"In New York City more teachers have died while on the payroll than have been removed for cause. Over the past three years, out of 55,000 tenured teachers, only seven have been removed for poor performance."
Criteria for Evaluating Teachers
"Is the classroom managed in a way that supports instruction? Second, are the kids engaged? Are they on task? And third, is there evidence that students started at point A and grew to point B?" he explained.
Does More Mean Better?
Teachers indicated that it was not uncommon to put in 80 to 90 hours a week at TEP.
"When the fifth graders took the New York State math and reading exams, the results were disappointing. On average, other schools in the district scored better than TEP."
Note: There was no mention of the beginning and ending proficiency levels reached by the school.
It takes time!
"We don't have a magic wand. We're not gonna take kids who are scoring below grade level and bring them up in a year," Vanderhoek said.
"You're the head of the school, the principal. Why do you get to keep your job?" Vanderhoek was asked. "Ultimately to build an excellent organization is going to take time. And if that doesn't happen let's say four years from now, then I shouldn't keep my job," Vanderhoek said.
- A school that has total control over hiring and firing and also controls which students attend and which students do not attend the school, in my mind, should show significant improvement. How can it not?
- Principal Vanderhoek is correct. It does take time to "build an excellent organization." The culture--attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors of the adults--must change and culture does not change in a year. TEP teachers were educated at the same colleges and universities as those teachers in other schools. So, why should they be any better or worse than any other teachers? The ultimate question is "Are the teachers better teachers for having taught in that school?" Are the students and teachers being set up for success? Does the culture of the school focus on student success or adult wants?
- There was a glaring omission from the schools criteria for teacher success--classroom management, student engagement, and improved test scores. Given the demographics of the school that consisted of large numbers of under-resourced students, the school staff should consider adding cross-content literacy instruction to their criteria for teacher success.
- The students are saying all the right things about their teachers. That combined with the fact that the teachers are working 80-90 hours a week and not getting results might indicate that they are not working on those things that raise student achievement and working longer will not produce better results. Activity does not equal success.