How Big of a Factor is Teacher Pay?

Basically, the biggest, according to Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder of a New York City charter school that will open its doors in 2009 with a minimum teacher salary of $125,000. Nationwide, the average salary for a middle school teacher is less than $50,000. Vanderhoek’s project is profiled in today’s Times. His school will have larger classes (as many as 30 students) and fewer support and administrative staff in order to afford the higher salaries. It will offer only two non-core subjects, music and Latin, and the principal will initially earn less than teachers — $90,000. The school’s students are expected to be primarily from low-income Latino families.

Vanderhoek, a Teach For America alum, says he formed his ideas about the primacy of teacher pay in part through his experience tutoring for a company called Manhattan GMAT in 2000, which lured the most qualified tutors by paying them $100 an hour. Here is the website for that company. As you can see, it caters to quite a rarefied group of customers: adults looking to obtain admission into top MBA programs, and who are willing to pay a premium for all the extra help they can get. The comparison to teaching impoverished children is a tenuous one at best. Poor kids bring a host of challenges with them into the classroom, challenges that may require more extras, not fewer. For example, the new school will have only two social workers and fewer extracurriculars in order to pay for the higher teacher salaries. But research suggests poor kids need more counseling, more after-school help, more of everything just to have a fair chance of academic success.

That said, there’s no doubt that experts across the spectrum agree that making teacher pay competitive with that of other professions is a crucial reform with the potential to broadly upgrade the public education system. So there’s no doubt Vanderhoek’s school will be watched closely for results. If it’s successful, though, it will be difficult to isolate teacher salary as a factor. After all, this will be an innovative, small charter school with a highly engaged and vetted staff. They’ll be earning more than the staff at other charters, but that won’t fully account for the school’s outcomes.

cross-posted at TAPPED 

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