A friend of mine recently sent me a video on a revolutionary charter school called The Equity Project (TEP), located in NYC:
The summary of the video is:
Katie Couric reports on an experimental New York City charter school founded on the idea of hiring the best teachers by paying them $125,000, while denying them tenure.
Let me first of all say that I think 60 minutes did a phenomenal job with the story. They covered it from every angle, and they left it open for the viewer to decide whether the radical ideas of the founder/principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, are a promising way forward in education. Notably, TEP is not based on the idea of paying based on performance. However, it is similar to the concept of merit pay in that it’s based on the idea that the prospect of greater teacher pay will boost student achievement.
One of the difficult things about new ideas in education is that it takes years to be able to truly evaluate whether it’s working. So, I don’t hold it against TEP that their scores came out below average. However, the totality of the video definitely brings up some concerns.
In the video, Vanderhoek said, “We’re trying to build a school where every teacher is a great teacher.”
Well, there’s no doubt about it, offering $125k is going to attract elite teachers, and that will probably eventually make TEP a good school, but that’s not the issue, because we need many good schools, not just one. The issue is that there aren’t enough elite teachers, and I don’t see what TEP is doing to create more of this precious resource. All they’re doing is consuming, by pulling great teachers from other schools. Their solution cannot possibly scale up; if every school offered the same deal, then we’d be in pretty much the same boat we’re in today.
Plus, how many people out there can make a career out of teaching with no administrative staff support? As the lady said at the end, that school is like the Olympics of teaching. It’s unreasonable to expect that we can staff every low-income school with career teachers, willing to work 90 hour weeks in bare-bones facilities with no support staff. That money is going to bring a few more people into the classroom who otherwise would have pursued other opportunities, but it’s not going to keep them there for the long-haul.
The principal in that video fired two of his fifteen teachers after year one. That’s more than 10% of his superstar staff, hand-selected from that giant bin applications they showed. And he seems proud of it. Where he sees success, I see a massive red flag. If he can’t staff properly when he’s the only public school offering $125k, how in the world is it supposed to work if every other school was doing the same thing?
When it comes to the question of tenure, I completely agree with Vanderhoek in that people shouldn’t be guaranteed a teaching job for life once they get a couple years in. That’s absurd. But equally absurd is the idea that there should be no safeguards to employment at all. His school doesn’t have contracts, so although he waited till the end of the year to make his cuts, he could have done it at any moment. Do we really want our schools to operate like the NFL, where a team is allowed to sever your employment at any minute, for any reason? What is missing is a sense of partnership: where is the assurance that a school will work with a teacher to get them performing at a high level? He also seems unwilling to apply his same standard of perfection to himself.
Maybe the issue is not that we have school systems that are chock full of lazy people who aren’t cut out for the job. I would posit that we have school systems full of perfectly normal population of human beings, ranging from capable to brilliant, most of whom aren’t cut out for a job that is absurdly challenging.
Unlike Joel Klein, quoted in the video, I’m not worried about figuring out how to get non-superstar teachers out the door. I’m worried about how to give people jobs that are well matched to their capabilities. The problem is that the profession is structured as a one-size-fits-all job. Whether you’re a TFA teacher fresh out of your five weeks of training or a 3o-year veteran with a proven track record, your responsibilities are substantially the same. That makes no sense. Rather than waiting for one million superhuman teachers to materialize, I say we need to start looking ways to make the education work for the human capital we actually have.