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Is Teacher Pay the Answer?

Science Under the Microscope

width=300A new NYC charter school and its hefty 6-figure pay checks have everybody buzzing.


The recent announcement of the initial eight-member teaching faculty of the new The Equity Project School (TEP) in New York City has elicited comment from pundits and teachers alike.

This unique charter school is experimenting with choosing the very best master teachers and paying them an annual salary of $125,000, to see whether it can reduce the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle-class peers. Reading about TEP, I couldn’t help but play the part of Devil’s Advocate, er... Devil’s Scientist.

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You see, what the folks organizing this school seem to have forgotten is what every middle school science student learns: to conduct an experiment you must vary only one factor at a time. If you want to know what makes a plant grow fastest, you can’t change the fertilizer and the frequency of watering at the same time. Strangely, that’s very much what The Equity Project School seems to be attempting.


Compared to a typical school, where we know that poor students and minorities fall behind academically, TEP will have:


•  Higher quality teachers, as evidenced by the extensive application process in which eight teachers were chosen from 600 applicants

•  Extremely high teacher salaries that are more than double the national average

•  Increased demands on teacher time, including extra curricular activities, school duties, administrative roles, and extended school day (until 6pm daily).

•  Increased time within a teacher’s school day/year/career for reflection and improvement

•  Larger class sizes, up to 30 students each, apparently to save the money that is used for teacher salaries

•  More (almost 100%) high-risk students, mainly from poor and Hispanic communities


As any of the aforementioned science students would tell you, any data obtained through this “experiment” will be fundamentally flawed. There are too many variables and no constant.


If student achievement improves, and the achievement gap appears to be closed by the innovative work that takes place at this school, it is likely that very little will change in other places. That’s because no district in the country can afford to staff its schools in the same way as The Equity Project School, and because there will be plenty of room to argue that factors other than teacher pay have caused its success. “How do we know”, these critics can charge, “that it wasn’t the sense of prestige felt by the students that motivated them to learn?” Or, better yet, “How can we be sure that it wasn’t the larger classes and the Hispanic population that led to the success?”

If left to choose one aspect of the TEP model to employ in their school systems, superintendents and school boards might be expected to choose the lowest-cost option and increase class sizes. Ridiculous, I know, but the experimental design behind TEP leaves open this possibility.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the philosophy of The Equity Project School and I am confident that it will be successful. My concern is that it may end up becoming a lightning rod for criticism and give the public the idea that teachers are demanding six-figure pay. 


My hope is that TEP will actually start a conversation about how we can recruit, train, and retain high-quality teachers in a typical public school setting and with a conventional budget. The Equity Project School, however, may eventually prove to be a counter-productive (and scientifically unsound) experiment.


What's your take on how Equity Project School will affect the greater education community? Share your thoughts in the comments section!