School & District Management Opinion

A Tough Week for Magic Wands: 60 Minutes goes in Search of the Superteacher

By Anthony Cody — March 14, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When I first heard about a school in Manhattan that was preparing to pay teachers up to $125,000 a year, I thought that was great. Finally, we are getting the respect we deserve. But after seeing the deal close up last night, I am not sure it is much of a bargain after all.

Last night the CBS 60 minutes team took us to a working class neighborhood in Washington Heights, Manhattan, to witness the latest incarnation of that elusive savior of children in poverty, the superteacher. Katie Couric visited a school there called TEP -- The Equity Project, whose claim to fame is their decision to pay their teaching staff $125,000 a year.

The school’s principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, has taken the myth of the superteacher and built a school around it.

Here is how he explains his theory of action.

If you want to attract and retain talent, you have to pay for it. And that is ultimately how student achievement will be impacted.
There are great teachers in almost every public school in the city. The difference is that they're often the exception not the rule. So what we're trying to do is build a school where every teacher is a great teacher.
The difference between a great teacher and a mediocre or poor teacher is several grade levels of achievement in a given year. A school that focuses all of its energy and resources on great teaching can bridge the achievement gap.

Two thirds of the kids arrive at TEP reading below grade level, we were told.

Couric reports that “Money that would go to pay for an assistant principal, reading specialist and other staff, goes into teacher salaries, but that means the teacher has to do those jobs as well.” One teacher, who was putting in 80 to 90 hours a week, was fired because she was not giving enough to the school. She had children of her own whom she found herself neglecting because of the demands of the school.

The staff is doing some excellent things. They are observing one another teach, and giving one another feedback. The students seem engaged, and report on camera that their teachers really care about their success.

But then we get to the tough part. The actual outcomes after their first year in operation. “The results were disappointing. On average, other schools in the District scored better than TEP.”

Principal Vanderhoek responds, “We don’t have a magic wand. We are not going to take kids who are scoring below grade level and bring them up in a year.”

Come again? What happened to “The difference between a great teacher and a mediocre or poor teacher is several grade levels of achievement in a given year”?

The whole theory behind this school is that teachers ARE the magic wand. Get them to work hard enough, motivate them with a big enough basket of carrots, and add in the ability to fire at will, and you have the cure to poverty right there. It just has not worked so far.

But that does not keep Katie Couric from putting a pretty ribbon on the story. She ends the story by saying:

There are signs things are moving in the right direction. Remember Christian Peña who couldn't read when he got to TEP? He jumped two grade levels in reading in just one year.

So the fact that the performance of the entire school of 247 students was lower than the average school in the city, all these other schools stuck with mediocre teachers protected by tenure, is just wiped from our memory with the closing image of Christian Peña, who did not learn to read in the regular schools, but has learned here.

The real subtext of the story is the issue of tenure.
We hear from Joel Klein, who was in charge of the New York city schools for 8 years, that “anyone with a pulse gets tenure.” Who the heck is to blame for that?? If, in fact, tenure offers this ironclad protection, should not the school system be careful who receives it? Is this not an indictment of his management, if his schools are granting tenure to anyone?

I do not have direct experience with schools in New York. I worked in a program called Peer Assistance and Review in Oakland for several years, as a coach for teachers who had received poor evaluations. The majority of these teachers were, in fact, terminated or counseled out of the profession. Furthermore, in Oakland most principals DO exercise their right to “non-re-elect” some probationary teachers before they get tenure.

We are in a political process here, where the rights of teachers to due process protections are under attack, from Wisconsin to New Jersey to Florida. This school is being offered up as an object lesson in why tenure is not needed. We have a principal who appears to be reasonable and ethical, and his teachers have faith in him. But we all know, or ought to know, that not all principals are so virtuous.

Katie Couric seems to think that the idea of a vindictive principal is some sort phantom invented by unions to scare members into paying dues. Unfortunately, principals are not all paragons of virtue, and they are under tremendous pressure to balance their budgets and raise test scores. Teachers who cost too much, or resist test preparation, or are otherwise outspoken, may well find themselves in danger of losing their jobs. The contract between the union and administration sets out a process for this.

Union leaders can be faulted for neglecting this issue, and simply saying “it’s the job of the administration to hire, supervise and fire employees.” This is technically true, but if we want to stand tall as a profession, we need to take some responsibility for having a workable evaluation process in place. The evaluation system needs improvement - and teachers need to be a part of making this happen. Here is a report I helped write that offers concrete suggestions along these lines.

But the idea that we can hire superteachers to eliminate the achievement gap so far is not working out. Principal Vanderhoek says he needs more time - four more years he wants, to run his experiment. But if other schools, with all the limitations of tenure that supposedly doom them to mediocrity, continue to outperform his, we may have to reexamine this model.

What do you think? Would you accept a higher salary in exchange for giving up your due process rights? Can we expect great teachers to close the achievement gap?

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.