An Experiment Worth Watching

The New York Times reports on the start of The Equity Project (TEP), a charter school in New York City that pays teachers $125,000 per year, with a potential for a $25,000 bonus. There is no tenure and only a limited retirement benefits program. There are no assistant principals, and the principal earns just $90,000. This experiment fascinates me for three reasons:

  1. There is no tenure! Even when I was in secondary school, the concept of tenure perplexed me, as I had my handful of subpar teachers each year. There may be an argument for tenure in universities, but the way tenure works in primary and secondary education is a monstrosity. There are generally a few observations (for which teachers prepare beforehand), some administrative recommendations, and a presentation before teachers get hired for life after a couple of years as an untenured teacher. At the point of tenure, the incentive to be a creative and effective teacher decreases drastically since little short of harassment of students will result in the teacher’s dismissal. Besides providing an incentive for teachers to consistently work harder, TEP’s No Tenure policy is attracting more creative (and probably better) teachers. This makes sense since not having tenure is riskier, and you need to be a better teacher to survive review on a year-to-year basis.
  2. Administration is devalued. The most important people in a school are the teachers. They are the ones working with children day in and day out and should be the most talented and intelligent members of the school. Most public schools currently have an incentive structure that encourages teachers to go into administrative jobs, of which there are far too many. What the heck does an assistant principal do anyway? My best math teacher in high school left the school to work as a Math Director in another district. This seems counterintuitive: Shouldn’t the best teachers remain as teachers? TEP encourages this.
  3. Teachers are paid for teaching. Teachers should be compensated most while they are working, not while they are retired. $125,000 sounds like a lot of money, but the amount most public schools pay teachers for not working is a lot as well. Cutting those retirement benefits not only saves costs but also contributes to an incentive structure that attracts talented teachers.

Thus far, several of my posts have pointed out bad equilibria but have been cautious in offering potential solutions. TEP excites me because it is a response—a very wise one, I think—to create that rare good equilibrium.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lawgorrhea on June 6, 2009 at 11:46 PM

    Agreed.

    You know what is another experiment worth watching??

    “I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”

    Reply

  2. Posted by Jin-Soo on June 7, 2009 at 4:42 PM

    Great post. I understand why professors get tenure since their research adds a lot to the value the university and is just as important, if not more, as their teaching abilities. But tenure in K-12 education is an outdated system. I believe it was implemented because teachers were being fired for their political views and it was more of a patronage system. Also, I think experience is important in teaching just as it is in basically any profession, but I don’t think it’s that important. Independent studies have show that Teach for America teachers significantly outperform other teachers on standardized exams. I hated those teachers who just made us watch videos or gave us handouts b/c they knew they couldn’t get fired b/c of tenure. This is not to say that there aren’t tenured teachers who give it their all every day, but the system itself is questionable. It’s inconceivable to think of giving doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc such a status without evaluating their performance every year. Also, I think the tragedy is that the teachers union has become so powerful that they’re understandably protecting their interests, but at the expense of the students who can’t exactly be expected to mobilize. Ok, long comment, but definitely something I’ve been thinking about.

    Reply

  3. Posted by John S on June 7, 2009 at 5:22 PM

    I think your administration point is good…way too often good teachers stop teaching because it’s in their interest to be a vice-principal. I do think, however, that SOMEONE needs to do the jobs an administration is supposed to do. Teachers cannot really respond to a lot of problems that affect students, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Only trained, effective administrators can deal with things like truancy and disciplinary problems that impede actual education. With that said, at most schools, it seems like assistant principals and guidance counselors are basically sinecures without a lot of real responsibilities.

    Reply

  4. […] is due to systemic developments that channel potentially great teachers away from teaching and poor incentives that discourage high-quality instruction. Nonetheless, it is often taken as axiom that teachers are […]

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