Farai Chideya, The Takeaway: The average salary for middle school teachers is $46,000, according to the Department of Labor, but a charter school in New York’s Washington Heights is going to be paying…wait for it…$125,000, using publicly allocated funds, to show that if teachers make more, they will be better teachers. Now, we’ve got the founder of the school on the line, Zeke Vanderhoek. The charter school is called The Equity Project. We also have in studio with us Joe Williams, Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform, to give his opinion. Welcome, Gentlemen.
Joe Williams, Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform: Good morning.
Zeke Vanderhoek, Founder of The Equity Project: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Farai Chideya: Alright, Zeke, in New York City, which can be tremendously expensive, you have a lot of teachers doubling up, tripling up, living in the typical tenement style apartment, trying to live up to their own ethical expectations because money is so tight, I’m talking mainly about fledgling teachers. You are talking about an astronomical leap in the pay reward for working with children. Why did you choose that and what do you think it will do?
Zeke Vanderhoek: Well, we chose it specifically because of the school’s belief that teacher quality is really the essential lever in student achievement, that a lot of other education reforms out there, while important, pale in comparison to who’s the person in the front of the classroom. My hope with it is actually not that it will incentivize teachers more. I don’t think paying teachers more money all of a sudden is going to make a poor teacher into a great teacher, or a mediocre teacher into a good teacher. I think, instead, the point of the money is sort of two-fold. One – it really values outstanding people who are in teaching right now, and says to them, as oppose to simply paying lip service to valuing them, actually valuing them. And the other is the hope that it attracts a broader pool of candidates into teaching itself and a more talented pool as a whole.
Farai Chideya: Alright, just very simply, you have some extraordinary people: Kobe Bryant’s former personal trainer, an accomplished violinist. You had 8 teaching positions, 600 applicants, 100 interviews. Why are people on that level, with these talents, choosing to go into teaching? What does it say about the mission-oriented aspects about teaching?
Zeke Vanderhoek: Well the vast majority of the teachers that we hire, in fact really all but one, have a tremendous amount of teaching experience. So these are people that have been teachers and getting paid typical teacher’s salaries, and now they’re coming to a school where their salaries are more commensurate with their abilities. I don’t think, again, that salaries in and of themselves say anything other than: we actually do value what you’re doing. I think it’s not that the salary inspires mission, it’s that these teachers already have been very mission-driven and have extensive experience working with children, now it’s just that they’re getting paid for it.
Farai Chideya: Alright. Joe, you are part of Democrats for Education Reform. We’ve noticed that your group really endorses charter school. Why? And what about the pay issue? Does it really make a difference?
Joe Williams: Sure. We like charter schools for this particular kind of reason. We feel it gives people with a good idea a chance to take it out and to try it in schools. In this case, the issue of value is crucial. I think that the key to what Zeke’s doing with his Charter School, is the amount of time they’ve tried to spend finding the best teachers that are there. And I think that the idea of sending this message that our best teachers are extremely valuable, it sort of matches what President Obama talked about on the campaign trail, that our best teachers deserve to be treated a lot better than we are right now. But we have a tough time getting, as a society and with our payscales and public schools right now, we have a tough time deciding that some teachers are better than others and this begins that conversation, that not all teachers are created equally.
Farai Chideya: What about teachers’ unions? This has been a political hot potato. The question essentially being asked is, if teachers want better pay and the teachers’ union is powerful, does the teachers’ union have an obligation to give something up? Often the thing being asked to give up is firing of teachers who are subpar.
Joe Williams: I think that all of this is give and take. I think though that the, and I mentioned President Obama talking about this kind of thing, paying best teachers more, he’s been talking about doing it in a way that’s done in collaboration with teachers, not imposing it on teachers. But I think that that’s the kind of bargain that’s going to have to be made. If you want to see teachers earning the kind of salary that we all believe teachers deserve, we’ve got to start recognizing that our best teachers are doing a much better job than our worst teachers are.
Farai Chideya: Zeke, we’re going to have to keep this relatively tight. When you think about a dream for American education, which is in some cases failing people so badly and in some cases succeeding against all odds, what’s your dream?
Zeke Vanderhoek: That all students are given the opportunity to have a great education and that schools are inspired hopefully by what we’re doing here in New York at The Equity Project and value teachers in a meaningful way, not just pay lip service to it.
Farai Chideya: Alright. Joe, give me a quick take
Joe Williams: My dream would be that a child’s zip code would not be the strongest determinant of whether or not they get a quality education or not.
Farai Chideya: Alright then. And Zeke, one little thing, do you want to create a franchise like the Kips Schools?
Zeke Vanderhoek: You know, the goal is eventually to scale up the model but that could be done through a variety of ways, including just inspiring other schools.
Farai Chideya: Alright, Zeke Vanderhoek founder of The Equity Project, Joe Williams, Democrat for Education Reform.