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School Experiment

Like so many others, I read the New York Times story about the charter school scheduled to open in Washington Heights this coming September. It is premised on a theory that teachers—-
excellent teachers, are the critical element determining success in learning rather than revolutionary classroom projectors, whiteboards, software, administrative leadership or even a low teacher-student ratio. To that end, the handpicked teachers will make a salary of $125,000 per year (two and a half times the national average) and will even be eligible for performance bonuses of up to $25,000.

120 fifth graders secured spots recently via a lottery system that gave preference to children from the local neighborhood and to low academic performers; primarily low-income Hispanic families. It will grow to 480 children in Grades 5 to 8, with 28 teachers.

As you might imagine, some very hot debates have ensued. Does a lineup of “All Stars” make a great school? Is a six figure salary the key to attract and motivate them? What defines a great teacher?

While I am a huge advocate of experimentation, there are a lot of uncontrolled variables in this experiment. The most damaging thing that could come from this is a conclusion drawn that it serves no real purpose to increase teacher salaries. I agree, teaching is a vocation, but the current level of pay is a tremendous barrier preventing entry to those of us who might make great teachers— but cannot fathom trying to support a family on those dollars or the audaciousness of being expected to do so. Furthermore, better instruction is not the same thing as better learning because in order to learn, students have to be able, prepared, motivated and most of all, supported at home. But the kind of innovative thinking behind this charter school is exiting because whatever you’re feeling, it does address some of the major problems known to exist in public education. The question that makes me uneasy is how will they measure a teacher’s success? I hope there will be an equal dose of innovation administered in this arena as well. We are all very familiar with what doesn’t work.

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