The Equity Project charter school in New York City’s Washington Heights will open this fall with 120 5th graders chosen by lottery. Preference was given to students from surrounding neighborhoods and to weak academic performers. Most children will be from low-income Hispanic families. The school will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers. The eight teachers who will open the school were selected in a nationwide search and will be paid a $125,000 annual salary, with potential bonuses in the second year.
In the TLN Forum discussion group, Susie asked:
Would you want to teach in such a school? How many times have you been with a group of accomplished educators and heard someone say, “Well, if we could just start our own school.... "?
Gayle, a professional development consultant, said:
I’m thrilled that high-quality teachers are offered this level of salary, but I have one concern. I worked with a principal who was starting a new school. He had hired only the top teachers for this prestigious high school. When I started working with him, he was struggling because this high-powered group of educators could not work together as a team. I hope this new school pays attention to this potential problem.
This is a really interesting story, one take on “what is excellent teaching?” Reminds me of the handful of early experiments with all National Board Certified Teacher schools. Some were good, some were lousy, and a couple failed outright. There are also examples in which top teachers have been lured from the suburbs to urban charter schools. Some discovered they could adapt their teaching to a different student demographic, others found they could not.
What’s your opinion? Is it enough to hand-pick a small group of teachers, pay them well, and hold them to high standards, regardless of the population they will be serving?
Dan, who teaches in an urban charter school, replied:
I think the idea for this school is great and I hope it succeeds. Paying teachers well, making jobs competitive, and making the hiring process a thorough and rigorous process are all important. I hope we see more schools that draw on these ideas.
My only pause comes from the TFA-tinged spirit of Ivy League exceptionalism that I detect. In describing this all-star team of teachers, the New York Times makes a point to mention the prestigious pedigrees of some selectees. I don’t begrudge them that, but I hope that the idea of $125,000 teaching jobs is not restricted from teachers with less eye-popping academic backgrounds.
Almost none of my teaching heroes went to colleges that US News and World Report would drool over.
Ariel, an NYC teacher, was tempted:
I thought about applying to this school when I saw their ad—$125,000 sounds great! But I learned that they do not have any additional funding to pay teachers this salary. Instead, they skimp on everything else. They have one administrative person, one secretary, some master teachers, and one social worker. Each teacher takes on one major administrative-type duty, in addition to teaching a full load.
I am skeptical of the idea that, when paid well, teachers can run a school by themselves. I rely on support staff and administrators for many things that I would never want to deal with on top of my teaching and all it requires. In addition, the school will serve a high-needs population with a high number of English Language Learners, and be run by a principal with only a few years of teaching under his belt and no experience as an administrator.
All that said, I only have five years of experience. What do you veterans think? Could you do away with all support staff and work with just one green principal and a group of very well-paid master teachers to get a middle school off the ground and running?
Marti, a 30-year veteran, replied:
I read the article and noted the (lack of) experience. I, too, am skeptical but interested. One side note on the support staff issue: A year ago I found a new doctor whose practice has no support staff! She and her partner answer phones, call you back promptly, schedule appointments, greet you, and keep the office on time. They feel they can run their practice more efficiently (all records are computerized, test results are e-mailed, etc.) and thus keep overhead low. So far their commitment to 45-minute appointments is awesome and effective!
Which is to say, it may or may not work for this new charter school but staffing a school differently is an interesting approach. I’m more concerned about their level of experience in this kind of setting.
Bill wondered about a shared vision:
I didn’t see any mention in the article of what the actual philosophy behind the school is. These teachers all appear to be genuinely gifted at what they do, and to have earned the deep respect of their students and their colleagues. That’s fantastic, and a great starting point. But for a school to be truly the best it can be, I believe you need to get teachers working together to create a positive synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the principal, who appears to be a relatively minor player in the plan, can help get this accomplished, or perhaps the teachers can do it on their own.
In short, if they can work together and collaborate in developing a unifying vision for the school, based on research and data, I think they have a great chance of succeeding. If not, well, they might succeed anyway (and best wishes to them!), and at a minimum we’ll have learned some things about what makes a great school.
Gayle’s observation about the potential for a group of top teachers to find it difficult to collaborate reminded me of a colleague. She is one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever worked with. She gets more out of those kids than I’ve ever seen from another teacher. And they love her. But she can’t work with her peers to save her life. And she writes it off as people being threatened by her. Never once does it occur to her that she can’t share the air.
Any thoughts about these aspects of the charter school plan, as described in the Times story? “Teachers will not have the same retirement benefits as members of the city’s teachers’ union. And they can be fired at will.”
The new school’s science teacher is 54 and moving from Arizona. She told the Times that the school is “an experiment of sorts, in which I’m one of the subjects. This could be unsettling were it not for the excitement of working with a team of master teachers, all of whom are motivated to help every student succeed, with no excuses and no blame. “
I often wonder how many public jobs are ‘underwritten’ by spouses. In my own situation, I am able to work as a teacher and feel good about it because my husband has provided enough for our family to thrive. My retirement has never been in question because he has us both covered. If I had to retire on my own merits, as some of my colleagues have done, it would not be a pretty sight. In a sense, my husband and I make a regular contribution to our community.
I’m guessing that the 54-year-old teacher can afford to “experiment” in this way because she has a secure retirement. If not, then she is being foolish with her own future.
What about you? Is this new charter school, as described in the New York Times’ story, a place where you might teach? Why or why not?