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Top dollar for top teachers at NYC charter school

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Kristen Van Ollefen leads 5th graders to her music class. (Dan Bobkoff/Front and Center)

Four years ago, former teacher Zeke Vanderhoek opened the New York charter school The Equity Project as kind of a message to the world. He figured that since some of the top-paying jobs are considered some of the most important, teachers should earn accordingly.

So, qualified teachers at TEP, as it’s become known, make $125,000 a year. They are also eligible for annual performance bonuses that bump up their salaries to $150,000. That’s more than twice as much as the average public school teacher makes and more than some college professors earn.

The idea is to invest in teachers who play one of the most influential roles in a child’s development. The goal is to reward top-quality teachers for the extra time and effort taken to encourage great thinkers and innovators. Kids who might someday end up as adults at the top of the economic ladder.

“Great schools have the potential to transform kids’ lives who are coming from poverty,” Principal Vanderhoek said.

Surveys of economic mobility show education is one of the top factors in success. And a recent study out of Harvard University suggests top teachers add thousands to a child’s lifetime earnings.

The study’s author, John Friedman, identified teachers who had the biggest impact on student test scores--say the top 5% of the profession. Then, he and his co-authors tracked their students’ progress for years.

“With just one year with a class, a teacher who is in the top 5% of his profession was able to raise the cumulative earnings of students in that classroom by $1.4 million,” Friedman said.

For each kid, a great teacher increased the student’s lifetime earnings by more than a quarter million dollars.

But the benefits go beyond that.

“A good teacher makes it more likely for a student to attend college, less likely to become a teenage parent, it makes students live in better neighborhoods and it makes them earn higher wages,” Friedman added.

That’s why this series of red trailers next to a football field in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood is one of the most scrutinized experiments in public education.

Kids here take daily music lessons in Kristen VanOllefen’s class. Most of her students are from the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City. Many have immigrant parents and come to this school way behind grade level in math and writing. But you wouldn’t know that if you just stumbled into this class. These kids are attentive and excited to be in school.

The kids here take physical education classes every day too.

But that wasn’t the first thing VanOllefen noticed when she first heard about TEP.

“I said, who gets paid $125,000? I want to see what is this place,” Van Ollefen recalled.

TEP skimps on everything but the salary. You don’t see support staff or laptops on every desk. This is a charter school, which means it gets taxpayer funding, but has no union or tenure.

Teachers are, of course, expected to work hard for their money. Classes are not small, about 30 to a room. Teachers work long hours and take on duties that are normally managed by dedicated staff in others schools. After class, TEP teachers analyze videos of their methods like coaches reviewing game tapes.

Kristen Van Ollefen teaches her music class. (Dan Bobkoff/Front and Center)
Unlike teacher evaluations based on standardized test scores that are at the heart of a national debate, teachers have to meet Principal Vanderhoek’s standards.

He’s looking for passionate teachers with engaging personalities who effectively address problem children.

“We typically don’t invite back 25% of the staff each year, which is high,” Vanderhoek said.

TEP’s initial test scores have been disappointing to middling. Still, New York City gave it an A on its latest school report card, showing that it’s making progress. And parents at the school are impressed.

Jeanette Duran has a seventh and eighth grader at TEP. She says TEP students are well prepared to go into the real world. Eighth grader Dawrin Silfa says TEP teachers go over and over class material until students like him actually get it.

“And, in my old school, they just gave you a packet to review it and practice with your family members,” Silfa added.

Michelle Fine of the City University of New York agrees teacher dedication is important. Even if TEP is a success, she says it’s not the only promising experiment in education.

“I think we need models that build communities for teaching and learning, not models that are simply driven by money,” Fine said.

Principal Vanderhoek is taking a long view.

He says while the school has not yet met the ultimate goals, the true test will be when the first batch of students reach high school this spring.

We won’t know for years if this is an answer for helping kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods achieve the American Dream. In the meantime, it’s sure helping the finances of a couple dozen public school teachers. 

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