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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Zeke Vanderhoek Starts a New School That Pays High Salaries (as if teaching is all about money)

The NY TIMES asks: Would six-figure salaries attract better teachers?"

Elissa, what kind of question is THAT?

Teachers who work in the public schools take on one of the hardest jobs around. I know from my experience as a mom to four young women, from my work with teachers for many years in terms of getting "their" kids services in special education settings, preventing "their" kids from entering the prison pipeline by assisting the parents at suspension hearings, and my reporting on and advocating for those education staffers re-assigned or bullied, that most of the people are terrific teachers who love what they do. It is not a matter of money, Elissa. Maybe the New York City Board of Education alleged Chancellor Joel Klein has talked with you about his view of re-assigned teachers, "...Many teachers have been charged with sexual activities and some are charged with corporal punishment...I have no interest in removing people who are qualified to teach, I can assure you, because I dont get any return..." (see the quote on this blog at left).

Bulloney. I have met the teachers who have been re-assigned by you, Mr. Klein, and I can say without hesitation that 95% of this group are caring professionals who love teaching and are not teaching for the money. Some have several graduate degrees and could easily work in a large corporation for 10 times the money they make in a public school. I wish Mr. Vanderhoek (see below) well, and he may succeed in his new venture, but it is obvious to me that you, Elissa, and you, Mr. Klein, just dont get what teaching is all about.


March 14, 2008
Public Lives
A Product of Private Schools, Advocating for Public Education


ZEKE M. VANDERHOEK, the upstart behind the extravagant, much-debated idea that paying teachers at his fledgling charter school $125,000 a year will translate into a top-notch education for students, is tethered by circumstance to a chair in his Chelsea office. It should be noted that Mr. Vanderhoek, 31 and showing the signs of an addiction to almond croissants, had to be coerced into making time to chat.

A public education advocate, innovator and, to some minds, revolutionary, he did not attend a single day of public school — he spent the years from kindergarten through 12th grade at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., and segued to Yale. He has a set-in-stone philosophy: teachers should not be fiscal martyrs. He found that out while earning $30,000 a year teaching — and occasionally screaming at — a class of 34 unruly sixth graders at Intermediate School 90 in Washington Heights, a slightly neglected neighborhood he grew to love and where he has chosen, with permission from the New York City Department of Education and the State Board of Regents, to hatch his own school.

Teachers at his charter school — The Equity Project Charter School, or TEP — will not toil for the measly salary he earned. He picked the $125,000 base pay because it fit his budget. “Actually, I think it should be higher,” he says. The teachers may also earn a maximum annual performance bonus of $25,000 in addition to their salary.

Mr. Vanderhoek is quite anxious to clear up some misconceptions about the school, starting with the criticism that it will attract more mercenaries than teachers.

But he disputes that. “The money, as funny as this may sound, is not about the money,” he says. “The money is a signifier. Because money, in our culture, is a signifier of how jobs are valued, and right now schools are telling teachers that they are not valued. The great and talented people who go into teaching are incentive-ized in every possible way to leave the classroom for jobs in administration or jobs outside of schools altogether. What we are trying to do is reverse those incentives. We want the best teachers to keep on teaching, to be challenged and valued.”

The school has received 70 “quality applications” so far for its teaching slots, and more than 100 substandard applications (doomed to Mr. Vanderhoek’s No Response File for failing to follow explicit directions). Applicants have to submit multiple examples of their students’ achievements and of their own teaching innovations, and must have scored in the 90th percentile in the verbal section of the GRE, GMAT or similar tests. Mr. Vanderhoek anticipates “a very veteran staff.”

“We’re not hiring first-year teachers,” he said.

The school’s inaugural class in 2009 will have 120 fifth graders, shepherded by seven “master” teachers. Plans call for a move into a new $17 million home by 2011.

Mr. Vanderhoek will serve as a hands-on and proprietary principal with a self-imposed starting salary of $90,000. “My uniform will be Bermuda shorts,” he quips, “and I plan to keep on being principal until I get fired.”

Unlikely; after all, he’s the boss, and the school’s board is likely to subscribe, as he does, to the theory that passionate and innovative teachers, not class size or a flashy curriculum, are the stimuli for academic success, particularly with underprivileged children.

The mandatory uniform for the students, who will eventually number 480, has yet to be decided. Mr. Vanderhoek confides that he is leaning toward generic khakis.

He looks somewhat miserable when asked about the bare walls in the executive office at Manhattan GMAT, the educational testing firm he started from scratch and parlayed into a multimillion-dollar testing and tutoring service, billed as the nation’s largest. His method? Attract smart tutors and compensate them handsomely, a recipe similar to the one that is the backbone of TEP.

Mr. Vanderhoek, who is keen on reinvention (before creating Manhattan GMAT in 2000, he taught at I.S. 90 for three years, subsisting on falafel and moonlighting as a tutor based at his local Starbucks), has updated the 3Rs to fit his teachercentric credo: Rigorous Qualifications, Redefined Expectations, and Revolutionary Compensation. No wonder he’s had no chance to personalize his office.

“I have a pretty strong aesthetic sense,” he says, “and I guess it’s kind of funny, or sad, that my own work space reflects none of it.” The wooden clock (“Not my taste, really”) is a parting gift from his staff at Manhattan GMAT — he stepped down as chairman in January 2007 to devote himself to his dream project, TEP. The plastic bear-shaped honey jar is his own; Greek yogurt, his latest food crave, requires sweetening. But the bright yellow mini-Lamborghini on the windowsill? “Don’t get the wrong idea about that,” he cautions. “It’s just a play on that classic obsession chief-executive-officer types have with fancy cars. I hate cars.” He doesn’t own one; he takes public transportation to and from the Harlem co-op he shares with his wife, Stephanie, and 11-month-old Ella.

His most recent extracurricular foray is a ditty (he is adept on guitar and piano), “Cookie McGirt,” written for Ella. He says his love of music is not why music is one of the school’s two electives (the other is Latin). Rather, they are geared for the students, mainly Dominican, many of whom are not proficient in English. As he puts it, “Music and Latin are the two subjects proven to most positively impact linguistic development.”

Mr. Vanderhoek seems very sure of this. He is also sure he won’t hire his mother, a professor of genetics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, if she applies. “A great teacher, but on the merits, she might need a little more middle-school experience.” Sorry, Mom.

March 7, 2008
At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay
Would six-figure salaries attract better teachers?

A New York City charter school set to open in 2009 in Washington Heights will test one of the most fundamental questions in education: Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.

The school, which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. That is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, roughly two and a half times the national average teacher salary and higher than the base salary of all but the most senior teachers in the most generous districts nationwide.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.

“I would much rather put a phenomenal, great teacher in a field with 30 kids and nothing else than take the mediocre teacher and give them half the number of students and give them all the technology in the world,” said Mr. Vanderhoek, 31, a Yale graduate and former middle school teacher who built a test preparation company that pays its tutors far more than the competition.

In exchange for their high salaries, teachers at the new school, the Equity Project, will work a longer day and year and assume responsibilities that usually fall to other staff members, like attendance coordinators and discipline deans. To make ends meet, the school, which will use only public money and charter school grants for all but its building, will scrimp elsewhere.

The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. At full capacity, it will have 28 teachers and 480 students. It will have no assistant principals, and only one or two social workers. Its classes will have 30 students. In an inversion of the traditional school hierarchy that is raising eyebrows among school administrators, the principal will start off earning just $90,000. In place of a menu of electives to round out the core curriculum, all students will take music and Latin. Period.

While the notion of raising teacher pay to attract better candidates may seem simple, the issue is at the crux of policy debates rippling through school systems nationwide, over how teachers should be selected, compensated and judged, and whether teacher quality matters more than, say, class size.

Mr. Vanderhoek’s school, which was approved by the city’s Education Department and the State Board of Regents, is poised to be one of the country’s most closely watched educational experiments, one that could pressure the city and its teachers’ union to rethink the pay for teachers in traditional schools.

“This is an approach that has not been tried in this way in American education, and it opens up a slew of fascinating opportunities,” said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “That $125,000 figure could have a catalytic effect.”

Yet the model is raising questions. Will two social workers be enough? Will even the most skillful teachers be able to handle classes of 30, several students more than the city average?

“I think they’ll have their hands full,” said Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton professor who studies the economics of education. “Paying teachers above market rate for hard-to-staff schools makes sense, don’t get me wrong. The question is, ‘How much do you want to tilt in that direction?’ ”

Michael Thomas Duffy, the city’s executive director for charter schools, said that even some Education Department staff members were skeptical, wondering, “If you’re putting all of your resources into teachers in the classroom, are you shorting some of the other aspects of what a good school requires?”

Mr. Vanderhoek won approval for the school after presenting city and state officials with a detailed proposal and budget. Mr. Duffy said the school could have a “tremendous impact” throughout the country. “If the department and the chancellor didn’t feel that this had a likelihood of success, we wouldn’t have approved it.”

The school’s students will be selected through a lottery weighted toward underperforming children and those who live nearby. It has generated so much buzz with its e-mail blasts and postings on education and employment Web sites that its voicemail message now implores prospective hires to please, make inquiries by e-mail.

“People are sort of stunned,” Mr. Vanderhoek said.

Ernest A. Logan, president of the city principals’ union, called the notion of paying the principal less than the teachers “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s nice to have a first violinist, a first tuba, but you’ve got to have someone who brings them all together,” Mr. Logan said. “If you cheapen the role of the school leader, you’re going to have anarchy and chaos.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, called the hefty salaries “a good experiment.” But she said that when teachers were not unionized, and most charter school teachers are not, their performance can be hampered by a lack of power in dealing with the principal. “What happens the first time a teacher says something like, ‘I don’t agree with you?’ ”

Mr. Vanderhoek spent three years teaching at Intermediate School 90 in Washington Heights through Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in challenging schools. He started tutoring to supplement his salary and created a test preparation company called Manhattan GMAT in 2000.

The secret to the company’s success, he said, was to pay tutors $100 an hour as well as bonuses, compensation that was several times more than other companies paid.

Mr. Vanderhoek is trying to raise money to lease space in the neighborhood and build a permanent building. But he has made a strategic decision to cover other expenses with city, state and federal money, plus a few grants. “We’re saying, ‘Look, we can do it on public funding, and we want to inspire other people to do it on public funding.’ ”

The school’s teachers will be selected through a rigorous application process outlined on its Web site,, and run by Mr. Vanderhoek. There will be telephone and in-person interviews, and applicants will have to submit multiple forms of evidence attesting to their students’ achievement and their own prowess; only those scoring at the 90th percentile in the verbal section of the GRE, GMAT or similar tests need apply. The process will culminate in three live teaching auditions.

Among those who have applied are a candidate who began teaching in the 1960s, founded a residential school for troubled adolescents, has a Ph.D in Latin and is working on a scholarly translation; and a would-be science teacher who has taught for more than a dozen years at some of the country’s top private schools.

Claudia Taylor, 29, applied to the Equity Project even though, she said, the thought of leaving the Harlem Village Academy, the charter school where she teaches reading, “breaks my heart.”

“I’m tired of making decisions about whether or not I can afford to go to a movie on a Friday night when I work literally 55 hours a week,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s very frustrating. I’m feeling like I either have to leave New York City or leave teaching, because I don’t want to have a roommate at 30 years old.”

Ms. Taylor hesitated before applying, because the salary “almost doesn’t seem real.” Then she thought back on her three years teaching in the traditional public schools and determined that it could be, saying, “There is definitely a lot of money that you saw being wasted.”

Mr. Vanderhoek said he planned to be principal for at least four years. After that, who knows? He could be promoted to teacher.

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