Can money buy good teachers?

  • Photo 1 of 4

    Kristen VanOllefen leads students between classes at TEP. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

  • Photo 2 of 4

    Zeke Vanderhoek is TEP's principal and founder. 

    - Dan Bobkoff

  • Photo 3 of 4

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

    - Dan Bobkoff

  • Photo 4 of 4

    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.

Log in to post7 Comments

I have a child who attends this school and I can tell you that the only focus the Principal has is that he proves that by paying teachers more, state test scores will increase. It's not really about the students, it's about his theory. He is an egomaniac who consistently makes stereotypical comments regarding the largely Dominican population at TEP. If you don't agree with him, you're out. That's the policy. Kids are not challenged, therefore many of them are bored and tend to act up in class. There isn't a "team spirit" or "pride in your school" atmosphere here. I think that if they allowed for some of those moments the kids will be happier, the teachers will be happier and they will have better success. Teachers are overworked and the classrooms are crowded (at least 30 kids per class). Mr. Vanderhoek is a young guy still, he may have achieved a lot in his life, but he still has a lot to learn when it comes to leadership.

Let's look at being a teacher, and for those of you who think teachers don't deserve more money or that we are nothing more than babysitters. How much do you pay a babysitter? I'll cheap and say you pay a babysitter $3.00 an hour. Teachers have an average of about 20 students. So if every parent paid $3.00 an hour for their child to go to school that would be $60.00 an hour for the teacher. $60.00 x 7 hours = $420 a day. $420 x 5 = $2,100 a week. $2,100 x 52 weeks = $109,200. $109,200 / 12 months = $9,100. $9,100 x 9 months = $81,900 for their work for the year. I'm sure you pay your babysitter more than that, plus they are actually being educated from teachers. And yes there is no absolute answer for getting through to every child, though that is the goal, there will always be students who can't connect with a teacher and may need to be placed in another classroom to be challenged. Just like a lawyer isn't going to win every case or a doctor isn't going to save every life. If you don't think that teachers deserve to be paid more for what they do, then find yourself a babysitter to educate your child and get them prepared for college.

this school is not highly comprensating teachers. They are playing budget monopoly to make it LOOK like they are highly comprensating teachers.

Everyone there wears at least two hats (if not more) to be compensated in the six figure range.

How sad is it we cannot just pay teachers well. This is NOT a good model and carries with it a very high burden on those they should be treating better.

What a shame we are here.

For 125,000$ they better pump out some geniuses. There are people who contribute far more to society and go to school far longer only to get paid much less. They do their job with a guarentee, these teachers are probably still talking about how they cant shouldn't be responsible when students refuse to learn. But teachers still deserve 125,000 right? Right? RIGHT? Classrooms now average about 30 students with 3 who fail. Thats a 10% fail rate in classrooms.

Should just offer 125,000 as a possible salary, however you only make that much with a less then 3% fail rate. Nobody deserves to rake in the money doing such a pathetic job.

PLSmeFOOL, who do we blame for your grammatical errors in your post? Is this the failure of your middle school English teacher or your own as a responsible adult? Hey, less than 3% of your reply was flawed! I say you deserve at least five figures...if we count the change.

I have been teaching for twenty years. When I started teaching, I was the first child in my family to complete college. Since that time, all my siblings have obtained their degrees in other areas... Civil engineering, nursing, business, air traffic control... Now they all make at least 75% more than I do. I have always believed that teaching is a calling first and that although the financial rewards are limited, payment comes in other ways, ie., someone gives you a good deal when you need your car repaired, or you go to the store and find most of what you need to buy on sale. However, I am currently somewhat perplexed by the lack of common courtesy In our profession. Parents blame teachers for things, administrators blame poor student performance on teachers, state legislators limit educational funding. I am 48 years old, single with an adult child. I can't help her in college because we always just barely got by. I have no retirement savings because I have had to emergency draw from it twice. Teachers like myself are working extra jobs to make ends meet. We are often hungry, driving old worn out cars, and barely hanging onto our homes in this present economy. I am passionate about teaching , I love it, but it has been, and most likely will still be, a financial strain. so next time you drop your child off at school, stroll the faculty parking area and count how many old cars you see. When you visit with your child's teacher, really look at them, at their physical health, look into their eyes. I can guarantee you will see some stress and fatigue. Thank your teachers , remember your own special teachers and then sincerely ask your teacher how can I help you? and mean it. Show up when you say you will, write thank you notes, if you own a business, give your teacher a discount on your product. We love, care for and educate you child, grandchild, nephew, cousin everyday. Remember us in your prayers and most of all, realize that we are sacrificing our own livelihood, financial future, and shortening our own bucket lists because we cant afford to dream, like we ask our children to do.

We need to not stop milking teachers dry for everything they can give. That does not make the profession attractive, and it sends promising young teachers running for the hills. Paying teachers 6 digit salaries is not a solution if the job is not satisfying. Why can't we just invest in teachers? Invest in their education, invest in their performance, hire the best, and build trust they can get the job done. If teachers and teacher leaders are true experts at their practice, they deserve a nice salary and the reward of an honorable and sane professional life. Invest in teacher preparation and teacher training/ professional development. Make teaching the top-desired and highly sought-after profession it is in Finland and other nations. Who wins? Everybody.

With Generous Support From...