"I would much rather put a phenomenal, great teacher in a field with 30 kids and nothing else than take the mediocre teacher and give them half the number of students and give them all the technology in the world,"
that is the key quote from the founder of a new charter school in New York City, who plans to pay his teachers $125,000 a year.
I want to call your attention to the article, entitled At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay, which is about the efforts of school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, A Yale graduate and former middle school teacher who founded a tutoring company that paid its employees far more than the competitive wage for the field.
- Vanderhoek will be doing his experiment without the additional funds some other approaches have had from outside funders. In order to achieve the high salary, he will not have attendance coordinators or assistant principals, and only one or two social workers - this latter decision may create some difficulties given the population from which the students will be drawn - Washington Heights is predominantly Hispanic and lower income, and it is reasonable to consider if the non-academic needs of the students might not be require more than two adults dedicated to meeting those needs.
In exchange for their high salaries, teachers at the new school, the Equity Project, will work a longer day and year and assume responsibilities that usually fall to other staff members, like attendance coordinators and discipline deans. To make ends meet, the school, which will use only public money and charter school grants for all but its building, will scrimp elsewhere.
I am not going to go through the entire article. It will not take you that long to read. This is an appropriate use of the legislation that gives charter schools flexibility. It enable small scale experiments to see how proposed alternatives work in the real world. It is interesting that in his commitment to hiring the best teachers he can, Vanderhoek will pay himself as principal significantly less than he will pay his teachers, capping his own salary at $90,000, at least to start.
There are concerns. To reach his salary goals within the traditional funding stream, the school will forgo much of the technology now an ever-present part of educational settings. But the students will be coming from families whose personal access to technology is likely to be limited. Might that in anyway handicap the students further along their educations? And while the American Federation of Teachers is currently supporting the experiment, there is the usual concern that most charter school teachers do not have union protection, which raises questions about what might happen when a teacher has a serious disagreement with the school's founding principal.
Clearly the school is drawing serious interest. Note these two paragrapsh:
The school’s teachers will be selected through a rigorous application process outlined on its Web site, www.tepcharter.org, and run by Mr. Vanderhoek. There will be telephone and in-person interviews, and applicants will have to submit multiple forms of evidence attesting to their students’ achievement and their own prowess; only those scoring at the 90th percentile in the verbal section of the GRE, GMAT or similar tests need apply. The process will culminate in three live teaching auditions.
Among those who have applied are a candidate who began teaching in the 1960s, founded a residential school for troubled adolescents, has a Ph.D in Latin and is working on a scholarly translation; and a would-be science teacher who has taught for more than a dozen years at some of the country’s top private schools.
I have a very few comments, things I think ought to be considered as you reflect upon the possibilities this experiment raises.
I think it is a good idea to have live teaching auditions - no matter what the paper credentials, some with subject matter expertise and high test scores simply cannot connect with the students for whom they are being considered as teachers. I had this experience with a student teacher who was a 4.0 junior phi beta kappa - it became clear when he did some lessons in isolation that he was frustrated with students who didn't take what he was offering as seriously as he did, and rather than adjust his instruction to find a way to connect with them let his frustration show, which simply made the kids turn him off almost completely. He quit before he was due to take over fulltime instruction for a period of about 6 weeks.
I have some concerns about the validity of the 90th percentile on such measures as are being used. I do not think they bear any relevance to the task you are asking them to take on. Here I note that my own scores would qualify me as well above the 90th percentile, and are totally irrelevant to my effectiveness as a teacher. My passion for my subject makes an important difference, to be sure. What is most important is my willingness to pay attention to my students, to recognize where they are academically, and to adjust my instruction so that I am challenging them to go beyond their current level but in a way that does not seem to them to be totally out of reach. I think the test score bit is artificial and may cost him some potentially outstanding teachers.
The higher pay is a good idea, especially in a high cost environment like new York City. And I will certainly never argue with the idea of paying good teachers more. While I am not poorly paid, being given an extra $7,000 annually for my national board certification, I still make significantly less than he will pay his teachers, and would certainly never turn down a significant pay increase.
I agree that skillful teachers can do an effective job with 30 students. This year my largest class is only 24, but I have taught as many as 36 in one room. I can do so effectively, but there is still potentially something those students lose, which is the amount of class participation. With 24 students I can almost in one 45 minute period get everyone participating in a discussion, if I can keep it going at a very fast pace. But, and this is quite important, not all students learn best in such a fast-paced environment. Some need some dead time, some more time to form their thoughts.
The caution I have is that Vanderhoek poses what I believe is an artificial dichotomy between having effective teachers and having smaller classes. This dichotomy exists only because we accept the limits of how much we are willing to spend on instructing our young people. Were the task as important as we claim it is, we would examine the best way of achieving it and then find a way of paying for it. If we determine that in order to have quality teachers we need to pay them more, why should it be at the expense of class sizes that we know provide a better learning environment for many of our students?
Having offered my caveats, I will be interested in seeing the results of this experiment. And I look forward to other experiments in how we educate our children. And as I do so, I would like to remind all who took the time to read this that there cannot be ONE way of doing so, because there is such variety among our students. Our tasks as teachers is to find the most effective way - from the perspectives and needs of the students, not for the efficiencies and perspectives of the adults - of meeting the educational needs of the young people who are the future of our society.