An Experiment With Six-Figure Teachers.

Rhena Jasey, a Harvard graduate, will be one of Equity’s teachers this fall. [via]

The Obama administration is pushing for more charter schools, but so far the movement has yielded some pretty unimpressive results.  Still, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the Equity Project charter set to open in Washington Heights this fall. The school’s rigorous teacher selection process whittled down the applicant pool to eight superstar teachers, each of whom will be paid $125,000, with a chance of a $25,000 bonus in the second year.

The school’s founder, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, 32, a Yale graduate who founded a test prep company, has been grappling with just these issues. Over the past 15 months he conducted a nationwide search that was almost the American Idol of education — minus the popular vote, but complete with hometown visits (Mr. Vanderhoek crisscrossed the country to observe the top 35 applicants in their natural habitats) and misty-eyed fans (like the principal who got so emotional recommending Casey Ash that, Mr. Vanderhoek recalled, she was “basically crying on the phone with me, saying what a treasure he was.”)

Mr. Ash, 33, who teaches at an elementary school on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C., will take the social studies slot.

The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this spring in a lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low academic performers; most students are from low-income Hispanic families. It will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.

The school received 600 applications. Mr. Vanderhoek interviewed 100 in person.

Along the way, Mr. Vanderhoek, who taught at a middle school in Washington Heights before founding Manhattan GMAT, learned a few lessons.

One was that a golden résumé and a well-run classroom are two different things. “There are people who it’s like, wow, they look great on paper, but the kids don’t respect them,” Mr. Vanderhoek said.

The eight winning candidates, he said, have some common traits, like a high “engagement factor,” as measured by the portion of a given time frame during which students seem so focused that they almost forget they are in class. They were expert at redirecting potential troublemakers, a crucial skill for middle school teachers. And they possessed a contagious enthusiasm — which Rhena Jasey, 30, Harvard Class of 2001, who has been teaching at a school in Maplewood, N.J., conveyed by introducing a math lesson with, “Oh, this is the fun part because I looooooove math!” Says Mr. Vanderhoek: “You couldn’t help but get excited.” Hired.

This jibes with an idea more education watchers are coming to accept: there’s little correlation between how a prospective teacher does in graduate school and how they fare in an actual classroom setting. And while family environment is a major factor in classroom success, it’s not the only one; indeed, a stellar  teacher can offset huge learning deficits among students, which makes their import all the more pronounced.

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Which presents us with another pretty compelling reason to pay these kind of salaries:  how many  people who are natural teachers don’t go into education because of the relatively meager pay? At the same time, the pay model at Equity would be difficult to replicate on a larger scale (especially since Equity teachers can be fired, unlike public school teachers). Still, it bears watching how well they do.

Aside: some of the commenters on the original Times story seemed annoyed that these kind of educational resources were going to “neighborhoods and schools where people don’t value education.” Coded language aside, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how education resources are allocated in big city school systems. Typically, the best resources are allocated to the best schools, which means that kids at a top-notch public high school like Stuyvesant — who are already more likely to come from middle and upper-middle class homes with highly educated parents — also get sterling facilities and the strongest teachers in the system. There’s an argument to be made that those are the kids who need those things the least.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • WestIndianArchie

    sigh, this meme again. The meme basically goes, “If we raise the starting salary for teachers, the naturally gifted will find their way into teaching.”

    This same meme seems to have worked for
    – investment bankers
    – lawyers
    – doctors

    All 3 professions get the lion’s share of the best and brightest.

    Let’s look @ the track record of each
    – ibankers – hmm, *checks wall street journal* – you mean to tell me, the smartest, most experienced, highest paid, people with all of the insider information – managed to get us into a depression?

    – lawyers – hmm, checks news paper – “more lawyers being laid off in tough economy” – But aren’t you supposed to sue when things get rough?

    – doctors – lemme see where America lies wrt to over all health, obesity, or life expectancy…

    Why would this be any different with teachers? NYC already pays 70K for teachers to sit in a rubber room.

    There is no doubt that by offering a lot of money to undergrads, they will jump through whatever hoops you put in front of them. But paying people a whole lot more doesn’t solve the overall problem.

    The problem with the more $$ solution – There are only a finite # of naturally great teachers amongst the vast # of mediocre teachers.

    The solution is not to try and promise some 18 year old undergrad untold riches, but going to those current 30-60 year old average teachers and training them to be great teachers.

    Is teaching so complicated, that only the Michael Jordan’s of the education world can pick up a piece of chalk?


  • Grump

    I like how they said that having a good teacher at a bad school is better than having a bad teacher a good school. I immediately thought of folks who are quick to ship their children to private schools because they think ALL PRIVATE schools are good and will subsequently make their children good students.

  • t.o.a n.

    I am really excited by the idea of this school. I think it will do very well. The annoyance of the commenters made me ask the question what makes one child deserving of a good education overseen by creative teachers in a school full of resources and another child not? In a global economy there cannot be any throw away children. All children deserve a quality education whether others think the children value it or not.

  • I read about this when it came out in the Times a few weeks back; it does re-hash the age-old debate “well just pay teachers more,” sure, but this is undoubtedly a good conversation to continue to have. The only thing that bothers me is if increased pay would bring folks into teaching that otherwise don’t care about it. In this sense, teaching is a lot different than many other professions: You can’t hate it and still perform well like some positions in business. You really have to love it. Still, teachers are paid so little (relative to their astronomical worth) that even a little boost is likely to bring in many better teachers.

    The union issues that G.D. brings up in his comment is an under-discussed, but absolutely critical consideration. Unionization, at least in teaching, really has some drawbacks (or, so my teacher friends have told me).

    I don’t want to take over this thread, but I wonder what folks think of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Not only do they pay teachers more and fire based on performance, but they make kids stay in school 60% longer than their public school counterparts, offer a variety of social service programs to anyone in the community, and have even experimented with paying kids for attending school. The results are incredible, but it carries a $58 million price tag annually, for only 700 students. Maybe we could afford it at a larger scale if we skimmed a bit form Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech…

  • t.o.a n.

    Increasing the salary will increase the job applicant pool in any profession. It is up to the hiring manager to wade through the pool and select candidates through resumes, interviews and other tools that fit the criteria that he is looking for. It also helps to be able to fire employees that are not performing.

  • IT’s not just “natural teachers.” I’m going through my old files today (part of the never-ending moving-in process) and realizing that one of the biggest factors in my own teaching success was having prep materials readily to hand. Once I’d moved offices often enough that my files were all dusty and disorganized and finding specific things was a pain in the ass, my teaching started to go downhill. But rediscovering all this old material and realizing that oh yeah, I *do* have lots of resources to teach a, b, and c is making me feel a lot better about maybe teaching again than I have in a long time.

    And you know, getting paid 6 figures would make it a SHITLOAD easier to afford to buy the materials/afford the space for a decent filing system. Or to replace my dead laptop, which has a lot of old teaching materials on it that I can’t access. Or to even hire someone to file my shit for me. Plus subscriptions to teaching journals, buying teaching books, joining professional organizations and maybe going to conferences–all the stuff that costs money but also has a lot to do with not getting stale.

  • IOW, yes, good teaching is something that people can be trained to do–or at least trained to be better at. It *is* a profession, after all, much like medicine.

    But that doesn’t mean that you can treat teachers like widgets and just “train” them in lieu of providing professional salaries. If you want people to adhere to professional standards, you need to pay them like professionals. And one important reason for that is that maintaining professional standards actually *does* cost the individual money.

    If the job is easy enough that people who are half burned out and/or not really paying attention can “go through the motions” and do it “well enough,” then fine; pay $40k/year. Your employees will be average, won’t be able to pay for ongoing training, won’t be able to take vacations very often to recharge, and won’t be willing or able to take their work home to a reasonably-appointed office space, since they won’t be able to afford the childcare, rent, equipment, or mortgages that make working at home possible. They won’t be able to afford the “networking” opportunities that keep them in touch with other professionals, who can alert them to new and interesting developments in various fields that can be brought into the classroom as examples, opportunities, or curricula (including field trips). They won’t be able to afford to provide students with the things that rich parents can afford to provide their children: educational games, toys and software; the ability to “try out” new, unfamiliar hobbies; the ability to experiment (which sometimes involves breaking or wasting materials) without being punished. And yes, if they are bright, ambitious, and creative enough to be able to command six-figure salaries in other professions, they are unlikely to stick around teaching for more than a couple years because (1) teaching well actually is really hard work; and (2) we do, as a society, measure status in large part by income and lifestyle, and few bright, ambitious people really are going to feel happy for long living and being treated “lower” than their intellectual peers.

    If the job actually demands ongoing attention, engagement, and interest, then the individual has to foster and develop those things. Which costs money. Which is part of *why* the children of professional parents are “brighter” and far, far more likely to become professionals themselves: their parents can afford to provide them with things that other kids don’t get, things that develop the qualities that one needs for “professional success.” A broad knowledge of lots of things, willingness to experiment, a fairly wide range of acquaintance, money to “keep up” with new technologies and information (books, magazine subscriptions), time to do “wasteful” things like sit around and read, or play with legos, or build shit out of cardboard–rather than helping around the house because mom and dad can’t afford to pick up pizza or hire a cleaner or replace shit that gets worn out or broken. Opportunities for networking and learning like summer camp, or arts programs.

    Poor parents who are really ambitious for their kids will manage to provide a lot of this stuff for their kids anyway. But even for middle-class parents–hell, even for upper-middle class parents–this stuff costs a lot of time and money. And if we want teachers to teach all kids the way that we (educated, middle- or upper-middle class, involved attentive individuals) would raise our own kids, then we need to be intellectually honest enough to admit that parenting that way is not cheap.

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  • I got a lot of my own thoughts on this stuff (having taught a grand total of three years) but I want to hear more from the pros. BPD, tell us more!

    Jeremy, are you questioning the teacher’s union (as per on your blog)? Your lefty card is hereby revoked!

  • I wrote a long-ass post over at my own place, Winslow.

  • liveloveteach

    TEP is such an interesting school model. I think it may actually work b/c it is so different. Not only do teachers get paid what they should be getting paid but they have a built in system of sabbatical for teachers which occurs every 5 years. It will be something to watch.
    I am just starting to on my path to becoming a teacher. I am learning so much in preparation for the fall semester when I will get my first class. I’m hoping to go into a high school and i’ll be in special education. Before starting on this journey I would have told you that anyone can teach, but honestly it is not as easy as it looks. It is truly a science when it comes down to it, one that I know I will not fully master for many, many years. Interestingly, if you read the NY Times story about TEP you will see that many of the teachers that were hired are older educators. Some have been teaching for decades. Honestly, in New York a teacher who has been teaching for 20+ years can actually make close to what these teachers are making.

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