Can money buy good teachers?


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    Kristen VanOllefen leads students between classes at TEP. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

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    Zeke Vanderhoek is TEP's principal and founder. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

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    Casey Ash is both a math teacher and assistant principal at TEP. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

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    A music student also learns vocabulary. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

Being a public school teacher has never been the road to wealth. But there’s a public charter school in New York City that’s paying its teachers six figures.

Kristen VanOllefen was teaching music in New Jersey when she read about the school on a friend's Facebook post.

"And, I said, who gets paid $125,000?” VanOllefen remembered. 

After a few years, and a grueling hiring process, VanOllefen can now say she does.

The school is called The Equity Project Charter School, or TEP for short. Most of its students are low-income and from the Washington Heights neighborhood. Since it opened four years ago, it’s been at the forefront of an experiment to see if paying top teachers top-dollar leads to a better education.

Zeke Vanderhoek, TEP’s founder and principal, says he would have paid teachers even more, but “candidly, it was the maximum amount that would keep our budget in the black.”

Vanderhoek wants to prove that if you've got great teachers, little else matters, and, you can afford them, even on a public school budget. "Teachers are the critical lever in student achievement, in student growth. If we’re serious about this, let’s pay them what they’re worth,” Vanderhoek says. 

But that strategy has its own costs. For now, TEP is a just a group of red trailers. The kids walk outside between periods.

There are no small classes, and there aren't laptops on every desk. Vanderhoek hopes the school moves to a better building some day. But, to him, what matters is having top teachers in the classroom, so that’s where the money goes. 

In Kristen VanOllefen’s music class, there are also lessons in vocabulary and math. And Van Ollefen's job doesn't stop at the classroom. Last year, she also administered state achievement tests. This year, she has a different additional job. And that’s part of the secret to TEP's high pay: Most teachers are doing the work of, well, two teachers.

TEP saves money by not hiring the kind of support staff other schools have. There are no substitutes. That makes for long, demanding days. Casey Ash, for instance, is both the 8th grade math teacher and the assistant principal. “I certainly don’t think it’s the right fit for everybody,” Ash says. 

Judith LeFevre learned that lesson the hard way. She spent most of her teaching career in Arizona, where she was highly regarded, but the pay was lousy. “After 30 years, I was still making just over $40,000,” she said.

So she applied to TEP. During the year-long interview process at TEP, she was observed in the classroom several times. Many applicants also submit videos of their teaching, or samples of student work showing major improvements.

LeFevre was finally hired to teach special education, and serve as the dean of discipline. Expectations were high. She soon found that her Arizona skills weren't as effective with students in New York.

After her first year, she wasn’t asked back.

“I think the big unanswered question is 'gee, what would’ve happened the second year, now that I had those skills, and had made that improvement?'” she says. 

But for TEP founder Zeke Vanderhoek, there’s no time to wait. Teachers must bring their A-game on day one, or else.

“We give our master teachers one year to prove themselves,” Vanderhoek says. 

Teachers are judged on classroom management and student test scores. They're also evaluated by other teachers. Vanderhoek says about a quarter of them don't make it to the second year.

Michelle Fine studies urban education at the City University of New York. She says she’s “a little worried about sustainability of the model. [TEP] might, in fact, be getting highly qualified educators, but either they’re burning out, or it’s not working very well, or they’re dissatisfied," she said.

Teachers at TEP acknowledge the stress, but many insisted it’s worth it. And they commend the quality of their colleagues.

Fine says she doesn't expect the school to become a national model, even though it may work well for this one community in Washington Heights.

And even that isn't clear yet. TEP hasn’t even been open four years. And while student test scores are creeping up, it’s too early to declare it a success. 

This year, TEP’s first class of eighth graders will head off to high school. In a few years, we’ll know better if their highly paid teachers will have a lasting effect on their lives.

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