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Will Paying Teachers Six Figures Help Students?

Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM

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If you've been listening to our series 21st Century Schools this week, you've probably heard about a lot of trends and ideas that are supposed to turn around American education. Some schools are focusing on entrepreneurship, others science and math, for instance. Well, the founder of a new charter school opening up next year in New York believes the answer is much simpler: hire great teachers and then pay them a whole lot of money. ideastream's Dan Bobkoff explains.

No one ever went into teaching to get rich. So, it’s no wonder Zeke Vanderhoek’s new charter school in New York is generating some buzz.

VANDERHOEK: The compensation piece, $125,000 a year, is often what’s focused on.

Well, of course, people are focusing on that. Most teachers make a fraction of that kind of money, so you can’t blame them for perking up when they hear that a public school is going to pay teachers six figures plus bonuses!

VANDERHOEK: That’s really just a way of saying to talented individuals: we value you. And we’re going to show we value you with more than simple words.

Vanderhoek, the 31-year old founder of the Equity Project Charter School, says all the school reforms in the world don’t add up to much without one key ingredient. 

VANDERHOEK: If I asked you, well tell me the greatest thing about your education, you’d probably give me the name of a couple of teachers.

This public school will ultimately serve 480 fifth through eighth graders in the low-income, heavily-Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Those who want to work at the school will undergo a rigorous hiring process, including having to show they’ve actually helped students succeed elsewhere. And, observers will visit their current classroom to see for themselves.

With no union, tenure, or incentives for seniority, Vanderhoek says teachers at his school who fail to shine, will be shown the door.

VANDERHOEK: The requirements for getting hired are teachers have to be outstanding. The requirement for remaining on the staff is that teachers have to be outstanding.

Vanderhoek’s singular focus on teacher quality jives with the findings of a report released last year by the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company. In the US, spending on education has soared 73 percent since 1980, and by 2005, class sizes were the smallest ever. Yet student performance is basically flat except when teacher quality was factored in. The group found students who consistently had high-performing teachers progressed three times faster than those faced with bottom barrel teachers.

To pay for his master teachers with only state funds, Vanderhoek says he’ll skimp elsewhere: such as eliminating assistant principals, and hiring fewer counselors. Teachers will be expected to take on additional responsibilities and lead staff development.

VANDERHOEK: We’re trying to create a structure where teachers are professionals. That means a professional workday, a professional work year. That also means opportunities for people to grow and develop themselves.

So, how does all this sound to educators here in Northeast Ohio?  Bill Siegferth is skeptical.  He heads Akron’s teachers union.

SIEGFERTH: The more you frustrate people with responsibilities beyond the classroom, and you lengthen the number of hours in the day, and the number of days, at some point your lines are going to cross and that $125,000 might not be the attraction he’s hoping it will be.

Salaries at New York’s Equity School will be $45 grand more than any Akron teacher makes. Teachers in Cleveland average about $63,000. It’s 70 in Shaker Heights.

Ohio University economist Richard Vedder is a big proponent of merit pay, and is intrigued, by Vanderhoek’s new school. He just worries that the school could be going overboard with its six-figure salaries.

VEDDER: These salaries are higher than we generally pay academics teaching at the collegiate level. People who have PhDs, many have written books.

It may be several years before we know if this six-figure salary experiment translates into significantly better educated students.  In the meantime, teachers everywhere can dream and pray that it does.

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