Yet another story about charter schools has been brought to my attention. This time, a school is being founded around the idea that paying teachers more will attract more top-flight teachers, which in turn will lead to greater student achievement. I think this is all true. In order to test this premise, the new school, The Equity Project, will be paying its teachers $125,000 a year and up to $25,000 in performance incentives. Not to state the obvious, but that's a whole lot of money.
In the New York Times story about the new school, the school is being presented as an experiment in increased teacher pay and in charter schools in general. However (as is often the case when we start talking about charter schools), I have serious misgivings about what we're actually going to learn from this experiment, rather than what we're going to perceive to learn from this experiment.
First of all, let's assume that the program is a success. Let's assume that the students at this school perform significantly better than their public school counterparts. The assumption will be that this was caused by better teachers and the better teachers were attracted by better pay. And that may be the case.
But it may also be the case that the students perform better because they have more engaged parents. While the students are selected by a lottery, the parents still have to be engaged enough to enter their child into that lottery. Even that small step means that they're engaged in the process somewhat more than what may be the case for the average public school parent. Clearly, having engaged parents will help children.
Also at the school, there will be different discipline structures than public schools, a non-unionized staff, longer hours, and a host of other differences from your standard public school. Anyone trying to compare apples to apples here is going to be pretty much out of luck.
Even beyond the impossibility of meaningful comparison between this charter school and a public school, I worry about some of the tactics that are being used. The principal of the school says in the article that he's not interested in hiring first-year teachers. That means that everyone he's hiring is already in the school system is in one way or another. Pulling these top-flight teachers out of their current schools really amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul. Unless you're bringing new teachers into the system (which The Equity Project is not) then you're talking a zero sum game. An increase in good teachers at one school becomes a decrease in quality teachers at another school. In that light, The Equity Project becomes a rather ironic name for the school indeed.
A related concern is that this project cannot be widely duplicated if it does work. The whole premise of the project is that paying teachers above the prevailing wages will attract better teachers. If everyone starts trying to pay above the prevailing wage, then that new elevated salary becomes the prevailing wage. And then you're back where you started. Because you aren't trying to attract new teachers into the system, nothing has been accomplished for the kids.
What this school scheme is doing is showing that people within a profession will seek the highest salary they can in their profession. Well, duh! A-Rod demonstrated that years ago to anyone who was paying attention. I don't see it bringing equity and I don't see it creating meaningful education reform.
I have no doubt that this school will produce results. Similarly I have every expectation that when it does it will be hailed as a prototype for new school reforms. Maybe the seeds are there for reform, but this isn't it. Don't buy the hype.