Saturday, March 15, 2008

$125,000 salaries for public school teachers?

So there's this guy who's starting a charter school in Washington Heights and his schtick is that he's going to pay his teachers $125,000 a year. Here's the Times front page article and here's one from the Houston Chronicle. And here's the Times profile of the guy, Zeke M. Vanderhoek.

I was with some folks who saw the hedline and said, great idea! The kneejerk reaction is, of course, great idea! But now that I've dug a little deeper--which really just means reading the full article and reading a couple of other articles, including his profile on the website of GMAT, his former company, I think this is a bad idea, and not just because I am opposed to charter schools. And not just because this is public tax money the city is allowing him to play with.

What's wrong with experimenting, trying it out, seeing if it works? Because it's a gimmick put forth by a guy who has almost no classroom experience, and it's being promoted by a mayor and a school chancellor who know nothing about education and are approaching the NYC public schools as one vast business experiment.

But a) education is different from business and b) the mayor isn't even treating the schools like a business he would really run. Would the mayor really suggest, or agree to, hiring running extremely qualified, experienced staff in a start-up and expect those experts to being doing their own administrative work, too?

These teachers are going to be working longer hours for their hyped up salaries, and they will be doing much of their own administrative work. The school is only hiring two guidance counselors for 480 students, too. And the classrooms are going to be 30+ kids. I think this is experiment is just PR hype and nonsense and in fact is not respectful to the work that teachers do, really.

Being a teacher is hard work and utterly undervalued, even by people who claim to value it. (I see so many parents praise teachers and then rip their child's teacher, often extremely experienced, to pieces because s/he doesn't think little Johnny is a genius.) And yes, starting pay for teachers everywhere with a master's in education should be more like $60-75K, not the $40K in New York City.

But here, this starting salary is based in the premise that New York City public school students are doing poorly because of poorly paid teachers. The real reason is the immense insurmountable (under our current social policies) poverty of most of the students in the country's largest school system. New York City's student body, more than a million kids in 1,200 schools, are 85 percent people of color, the majority Hispanic. (I read a couple of years ago that half of all NYC residents were born in a foreign country.)

Really hard to find all this information, but this report is interesting. Thirteen percent of NYC students have IEPs, for instance, "Individualized Education Programs," which means they are special ed students, technically. I can't figure out what the real number of free lunch kids in NYC is, but it seems that the city gives 860,000 free meals a day to students. That's a bit deceptive, though, because breakfast is free to all kids, not just the registered free lunch kids. At any rate, we know that NYC school kids are mostly poor, the graduation rate is atrocious, and the kids who suffer the most are poor kids of color.

Vanderhoek has three years classroom teaching, and tutoring on the side, after which he went on to create a million-dollar tutoring program, based on the premise that you should pay your tutors a lot (nice for him). He made a lot of money. He's 31. At this new school he is paying himself, as principal, $90K, to head a school he himself would not be able to get a job at: The Times profile kicker is that Vanderhoek is "sure he won’t hire his mother, a professor of genetics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, if she applies. “A great teacher, but on the merits, she might need a little more middle-school experience.” Sorry, Mom." Ha ha, but I want a competent educator at the head of my school, not an entrepreneurial kid who doesn't understand the classroom.

The solution to education is money, of course. Of course you can and should throw money at it. But all kinds of money -- small classrooms, secretaries who can actually do their jobs, lots of resources, large enough classroom space, time for art and music and P.E. Not to mention national health, subsidized rents, expanded entitlements of all kinds. I pay nearly $400 a month for health and dental; I would gladly pay that, double that, to the government if it meant that everyone in the country had guaranteed health care.

My solution here is, sure, pay the teachers more, pay them $100K, even. But use the rest of the money to hire really superb administrative staff. Hire enough fantastic guidance counselors, whatever that magic number is. Hire a principal who has significant classroom experience. Let the talented and experienced teachers do what they do best: teach.

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