Does Better Pay Mean Better Teachers?

Filed under: Opinions

Is teacher pay the key to improving public schools? Image: sxc.hu

This fall, a new charter school will open in the Washington Heights neighborhood of new York City that will seek to prove that excellent teachers -- not technology, exceptional principals or smaller class sizes -- are the key to educational success. It's called the Equity Project Charter School and the hand-picked group of teachers selected to work there will earn an unheard of $125,000 per year.

The brainchild of Zeke M. Vanderhoek, a 32-year-old Yale graduate, the school will be publicly funded for everything except the building, which is being leased using a combination of public school financing, a charter school grant and a small amount of private donations. The 120 fifth graders who will show up in September are mostly from low-income Hispanic families and were chosen via a lottery that gave preference to low academic performers who live in the neighborhood.

While the students may not be all that unique, Vanderhoek believes their new teachers are. Chosen after an exhaustive cross-country search, his "dream team" consists of eight educators who have demonstrated a high "engagement factor" with their students, are skilled at dealing with potential trouble-makers and, most importantly, are highly enthusiastic about their subject matter.

"The idea is relatively simple," says Vanderhoek. "The key to educating anybody, but particularly important for low-income students, is a great teacher. The idea behind the school is that to attract and retain great teachers you have to do what you do in any other profession to attract and retain talent, and that is pay for it."

Vanderhoek himself will earn $90,000 as the principal of the new school and the teachers will be expected to perform duties above and beyond what is normally asked of them. With no assistant principals, substitutes or deans on staff, they will work longer hours, more days, and have more students than in a typical New York City fifth-grade class. In addition, these teachers will not be eligible for the same retirement benefits as members of the city's teachers union.

But there is another important distinction between these teachers and other public school teachers: Equity Project teachers are eligible for bonuses based on school-wide performance and can be fired at will. I am all for paying good teachers a good salary, but is it possible that those last two stipulations alone might be enough to transform our public schools?

Vanderhoek believes this model of teacher compensation could be applied nationwide using existing public funding. But first, his dream team must prove themselves. "I have tremendous confidence that the staff is going to be excellent," he says. "But we will see."

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