the equity project, education reform

Manhattan Charter School Pays Teachers Six Figures

August 26, 2010 06:30 AM
by Rachel Balik
Based on the theory that quality teachers are the solution to low-performing students, a school has lured the country’s best with high pay. Did it live up to the hype in its first year?

Meeting Proficiency Standards

Founded by Yale graduate Zeke M. Vanderhoek, the Equity Project (TEP) Charter School in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City gained lots of media attention when it opened last September. To recruit and keep the country’s best teachers, the starting teacher’s salary at the school is $125,000, with a potential second-year bonus of $25,000 based on student performance.

Did the school live up to the hype in its first year? According to Barbara Martinez of The Wall Street Journal, "Its test scores did not match the hoopla." Just 27 percent of students were proficient in English and 37.4 percent were proficient in math. "On average, the other public schools in Equity Project's Washington Heights district performed better," Martinez wrote.

But Vanderhoek wasn't concerned. For a first-year school, "It's not unexpected," he told The Journal. "I'm very confident in the vision of the school and the teachers we have, but we're not there yet."

Background: The “American Idol” of teacher searches

Eliciting good academic achievement was expected to be a challenge for the Equity Project: Priority in selecting students for the school was given to poor academic performers and children from low-income families.

In 2009, The New York Times reported that Vanderhoek, who is the school’s principal with a salary of $90,000, personally selected each teacher on the eight-member team and interviewed 100 of the 600 applicants to the school. The school chose to focus solely on teacher quality as a kind of experiment. Whereas other charter schools have elected to have small class sizes, teachers at the Equity Project have 30 students, which is actually more than an average middle school class in New York City.

The Equity Project Web site says that the school used three principles in recruiting potential teachers: “Rigorous Qualifications, Redefined Expectations, & Revolutionary Compensation.” In addition to possessing excellent subject knowledge, teachers must show the ability to develop innovative curricula and a unique knack for engaging students. Vanderhoek visited teachers in their classrooms during the application process, and the Times says that he looked for moments when students were so engrossed in what they were learning that they “forget they are in class.”

Reaction: An educator questions the sustainability of the Equity Project

The author of the blog NYC Educator, identified as Miss Eyre, wrote about the Equity Project in May 2010. "I had to admit that I was interested in seeing what kind of workload they thought was worth $125K a year," she wrote. She links to a typical day for a TEP teacher and remarks that "it's intense, to say the least."

"I have to confess that I don't think I've got what it takes to join up with TEP," Miss Eyre concludes. "God bless the ones who do, I suppose, and maybe I'm wrong that this is an unsustainable model."

Video: Interview with Zeke Vanderhoek

The Web site Big Think hosts an interview with Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of the Equity Project Charter School.

Historical Context: More choice in schools

When Barack Obama appointed Arne Duncan as education secretary, education reform became a top priority. Concern about the effectiveness of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy has been mounting, and the question of how to evaluate student performance is still unresolved. The primary quandary concerns how well standardized tests reflect progress and learning. But Duncan also plans to focus on better teacher quality. He called education reform a matter of “civil rights.”

One potential strategy for reforming education is school vouchers, which allow students to use government money to attend a private or parochial school. The vouchers are an alternative to publicly sponsored charter schools, which often are in high demand and considered to be superior to regular schools. In May 2009, a Georgia state senator proposed issuing statewide school vouchers.

Related Topic: Family physicians scarce due to low pay

Typically, it is hard to recruit good teachers because highly qualified people often choose professions where they can earn a more competitive salary. The same problem also occurs in the medical fields; today, few medical students are electing to become general practitioners because of low pay.

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