Monday, March 24, 2008

The (In)Equity Project

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.


Liz Simon said...

Of course the Equity Project is not an experiment with one isolated independent variable. No innovation in education (one could argue, no experiment involving human subjects) is.

If, as you claim, there are a fixed number of good teachers within the public/charter system, does it matter where they are? The point of the Equity Project is to raise the bar and ultimately draw great educators in -- to assert that education is valued not just in talk but economic resources. Mr. Vanderhoek expects his teachers to jump higher, not simply because they're altruistic but because they're getting paid for an incredibly demanding job. Consider how hospitals, law firms, and investment banks attract and retain talent. It isn't simply through the promise of long hours and the chance to be part of something bigger. Much of it is the money. And talented people will always be siphoned away from the teaching profession if teachers' salaries remain as abysmally low as they are today, compared to other demanding professions that require significant education.

Good for Mr. Vanderhoek for not hiring first-year teachers! No one is an expert teacher (or expert anything) in his/her first, second or third year. He is paying teachers to be outstanding.

And if $125,000 (or its inflation-adjusted equivalent) becomes the prevailing wage for teachers, after a heavy quality-control process, hallelujah! Our society will be all the better: It will have put its money where its mouth is, and we will have put our current resources into our future resources.

Hanseul Kang said...

I think you're right that there is no way to do a straight comparison between The Equity Project and public schools, and it's not a model that is directly broadly replicable. However, I think that we do need experimentation and new models in education, and just from poking around the website for the school, I've been intrigued by the level of thinking that has clearly gone into designing the school.

For example, while the teacher salary grabs the headlines, I think one of the most interesting parts of the school is that it plans to pay those salaries on the per-pupil public funding it receives alone, without outside fundraising, simply by reallocating resources (for example, teachers take on administrative duties during different periods of the day, and so there are no assistant principals or other administrative roles). Who knows if it will work, but the founder is aiming to show that it's possible to pay teachers much more even at existing spending levels by spending money more efficiently.

The school is overall giving teachers an enormous amount of responsibility as the flip side to the high salary, and aiming to build in time directly into the (longer) work day to accomplish all this. It's also got an innovative teacher development model, with planned summer training and curriculum development, and a required sabbatical every 5-6 years.

These are all interesting and innovative ideas that I think are worth exploring, despite all the valid questions and criticisms you raised.