Politics & Policy

Teacher Quality, Not Quantity

(Image: The Equity Project via Google Plus)
A NYC charter school makes the case that good teachers matter more than administrators.

Five years ago, a brand-new New York City charter school threw out the playbook. It ditched the administrators and support staff that run rampant in most schools and put the savings toward teacher pay. It turns out that paying fewer employees makes it possible to pay them better — a lot better. Who’d have thought?

The Equity Project (TEP) middle school features teacher salaries of $125,000, with returning teachers receiving a bonus of between 7 and 12 percent (based on school-wide performance). At the same time, the school asks teachers to participate in ongoing training and to shoulder outsize professional responsibilities. Critically, TEP made the numbers work while collecting only the regular funds allocated to any New York City charter school. This model has made it easy for TEP to be highly selective when hiring, to ask teachers to take on additional roles, and to retain its teachers at an unusually high rate.

The results have been impressive. Last week, research firm Mathematica released the first evaluation of TEP. TEP had enrolled its first fifth-grade class in fall 2009; and, in 2013, that first class completed TEP’s eighth grade. Mathematica’s evaluation found that TEP had positive impacts on student achievement across subjects and cohorts, and that the effects were especially large in math. Compared with similar students in New York City public schools, TEP students who attended from grade five to eight gained 1.4 years of math during each of the four years they spent at the school. The gains in English and science were less impressive but still substantial.

TEP’s student body is predominantly low-income and Hispanic. TEP achieved these results while serving special-education students at the same rate as other New York City public schools. Moreover, the TEP admissions process actually favored students who had low achievement levels in their previous schools. And, addressing fears that the effects might be a by-product of some kind of skimming effect, Mathematica reported that TEP’s student attrition rate looks like that at other comparable New York City schools.

TEP carefully selects its educators, pays them well, and then asks them to meet high expectations and to handle modestly larger classes. TEP teachers have an average class size of 31, compared with 26 or 27 for New York City district middle schools. TEP offers a corrective to the bureaucratic bloat so pervasive in American schooling. The truth is that lots of school systems should be able to pay teachers $125,000 — and then recruit and deploy them accordingly.

Consider that Cleveland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Newark, and Detroit, among many other school systems, all spent more than $18,000 per student back in 2010–11 (the most recent year for which national figures are available). Four years ago, that was more than $558,000 for a class of 31 students (the average class size in TEP). Paying that classroom teacher a salary of $125,000 would require less than 23 percent of those funds. Managing to provide that kind of pay really shouldn’t be much of a trick: In most school systems, more than 80 percent of spending is devoted to employee salary and benefits.  

TEP is so eye-opening because school systems have eschewed a focus on quality, instead opting to pour billions into adding bureaucrats, bodies, and benefits. Districts have hired more teachers, asking each to teach slightly fewer students — all of which makes it more difficult to be selective or to significantly raise pay. It’s worth noting that this is not a case of teachers’-union perfidy; this is matter of management failing to live up to its most basic obligations.

Friedman Foundation fellow Ben Scafidi has calculated that, during the half century between 1950 and 2009, public-school staffing in the United States grew four times as fast as enrollment. The number of administrative and other non-teaching jobs grew seven times as fast as student enrollment during that span. From 1992 to 2009, schools added administrators and other non-teaching roles more than twice as fast as they added students. The results can get downright silly. In Maine, student enrollment fell by 11 percent from 1992 to 2009, while the number of public-school personnel grew by 35 percent.

We spend a lot of money on a lot of teachers in the U.S. Nationally, average salaries are in the low $50,000s, which is enough to produce candidates for our 3.5 million teaching jobs — but far too low to make teaching a financially attractive option compared with other professions. TEP abandons the lazy staffing habits produced by decades of bureaucratic inertia and instead offers a lean model that focuses on hiring classroom talent — and then valuing and fully using that talent.

TEP suggests that the quality of teachers might matter more for students than does the number of adults collecting a paycheck. Quality rather than quantity — what a novel mantra for 21st-century school reform.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book The Cage-Busting Teacher.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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