Hiring heroes for a fistful of dollars

The Times Educational Supplement, April 2011, News

There are just two types of teacher in the US today, if you believe the prevailing view of politicians on both left and right: the great ones needed to repair the education system and the failing ones dragging it down. In this cartoon landscape, it’s easy to spot the sticks being wielded against the villains (most notably, attacks on tenure and the unions). But carrots for the heroes have been less in evidence.

Which is why a middle school in New York City has been attracting attention. For teachers at The Equity Project (TEP) in Washington Heights, a poor black and Hispanic neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, the incentive for greatness is a $125,000 (£77,000) starting salary. With the average public school teacher in the city earning $73,000, that figure – along with performance-related bonuses of up to $25,000 – has drawn in talent from across the country.

Zeke Vanderhoek is founder and principal of TEP, a publicly funded, privately run charter school with 247 students in the 5th and 6th grades (10 to 12-year-olds). A teacher turned entrepreneur, Mr Vanderhoek personally sought out his 15 so-called master teachers. He also has sole responsibility for sacking those who fail to perform, because in return for their bumper pay cheque, TEP teachers forgo any form of job security.

Tenured public school teachers are near impossible to dismiss, but TEP teachers don’t even have contracts. Two of the school’s original eight recruits were sacked after the first year. At the end of the school’s second year in June, there may be further dismissals.

Mr Vanderhoek talks the talk of the new orthodoxy: “Good teachers in public schools in the city are the exception, not the rule,” he said recently on news show 60 Minutes. “What we’re going to do is build a school where every teacher is a great teacher.” Teacher quality, TEP’s website boldly asserts, is “the most important factor in achieving educational equity for low income students”.

Mr Vanderhoek demands much from his staff. Candidates must pass a number of live teaching auditions. Once hired, they must continually prove they are moving students “from point A to point B”.

Long working days include extra-curricular responsibilities, additional duties more typically performed by support staff, and sick cover for colleagues. One teacher, no longer at TEP, told 60 Minutes she had to work 80 to 90-hour weeks to keep up.

Since TEP’s budget is no larger than other charter schools, paying high salaries means scrimping on facilities and hi-tech teaching aids. Mr Vanderhoek believes this is a winning formula that could be rolled out across the US. And yet by conventional standards, TEP’s results are unimpressive. In standard tests for English and maths, students performed well below the city average. Mr Vanderhoek’s defence is that the socio-economic disadvantages of his pupils will take time to counter.

If TEP can achieve that, it will bolster vogue thinking in education policy circles. If it can’t, those who argue there are limits to the miracles that teachers can perform will gain ammunition. In either case, Mr Vanderhoek’s experiment is helping prove the point that to attract bright people to the profession, decent salaries are a fine place to start.

This article at the Times Educational Supplement