Charter School Boasts Big Pay and Big Results

Study Finds Gains for Students at Manhattan Charter With High Teacher Pay

Leslie Brody | Wall Street Journal
10/24/14

 A small New York City charter school opened five years ago with an attention-grabbing premise: Paying teachers $125,000 salaries would lure ace faculty and help poor children learn.

A new study of the middle school, called The Equity Project, suggests that the experiment is working. The report to be released Friday by Mathematica Policy Research said the school’s students made more progress than similar children attending traditional city schools.

After four years at the charter school, eighth-graders showed average test score gains in math equal to an additional year and a half of school, compared with district students. The study found these charter students’ gains equaled more than an extra half-year in science and almost an extra half-year in English.

The Equity Project made headlines in 2008 when it announced it would pay nearly double the average salary of teachers in the city’s district schools. Joshua Furgeson, one of the report’s authors, said it shows that a “school that focuses its resources and attention on hiring and developing the best teachers can substantially improve student achievement.”

The charter’s 480 students, who are mostly Hispanic, squeeze into a cluster of red trailers near 193rd Street in Washington Heights. They walk to class through alleys outdoors named “Achievement Avenue” and “Creativity Court.” The founder and principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, is a 38-year-old Yale University graduate who taught in a nearby district school and launched a tutoring company.

His philosophy reflects research showing teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. The report said the charter has a lean administrative staff and slightly larger classes—31 students compared with an average of about 26 or 27 in district schools—so it can pour resources into teacher pay and training.

Charters get $13,777 per pupil in public funding. One of Mr. Vanderhoek’s missions is proving that the aid allotted to charters suffices to pay teachers well. Teachers can get bonuses, so the highest-paid faculty made almost $140,000 last year.

Mr. Vanderhoek earns $94,000 as the principal; higher pay for teachers is designed to keep the best ones in classrooms.

Job applicants submit video of their teaching styles and evidence of their students’ growth. If invited for an interview, they have daylong auditions, leading classes under scrutiny of the staff.

Ryan Silver, a 28-year-old social-studies teacher who previously taught in Newark, said he was drawn to the high expectations, and that teachers won’t make it if they come solely for the money.

Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of the Equity Project charter school, in a classroom at the school in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan on Oct. 22. ENLARGE
Zeke Vanderhoek, founder and principal of the Equity Project charter school, in a classroom at the school in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan on Oct. 22.PAPAPIETRO, CLAUDIO

“If they come here to make a difference and to truly inspire students…then this is the place for them,” he said.

Teachers are observed by colleagues and get feedback weekly, and they have four weeks of full-day professional development each year. Days are long, with teachers at work from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and students attending from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Many teachers don’t last. Of 43 hired during the four years studied, 47% didn’t return for a second year, in most cases because they weren’t asked back. That is higher turnover than in district middle schools, where 27% don’t come back for a second year, the study said.

“Sustainability is a huge issue” the school is trying to address, Mr. Vanderhoek said. Partly to avoid teacher burnout, he said, it switched to a year-round calendar, with several long breaks.

Critics of charter schools say, among other complaints, that they drain money from regular public schools, skim talented students and nudge out disruptive ones. The study found The Equity Project’s students had similar academic backgrounds to children in nearby district schools, had about the same attrition rate and none was expelled. In 2012-13, about 21% at the charter were English language learners and 21% had special needs, city data show.

To assess the school’s impact, the study identified a set of children who stayed in nearby district schools and closely resembled the charter students in family income, race, neighborhood and fourth-grade test records. The study compared the progress of this set to the charter group from 2009-10 through 2012-13.

While the charter’s students showed more growth, many still struggled. City data show that only 43% of the eighth-graders at The Equity Project passed state math exams in 2013, though that was higher than 26% citywide.

Some have questioned whether the model could be applied widely to other schools. Brian Gill, a co-author of the study, said the high-pay approach shows promise for more schools, but, “whether it would be possible to do it in an entire system in a city is a much harder question.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has embraced efforts to use data to boost teacher quality, financed the research.

Students get daily music and physical education. Several said their teachers were fun but strict. Jean Jimenez, a sixth-grader whose parents work as cleaners in a hotel and a factory, said his teachers “get things out of us we didn’t know we had.”

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