So, I watched Katie Couric's 60 Minutes segment about The Equity Project (TEP) charter in New York City. It was all wine and roses school reform, with 34-year-old principal Keith Vanderhoek walking and talking with the swagger of a man who knows what he's doing:? he pays teachers $125,000 -- yes, a great wage --?by cutting costs elsewhere (the school is housed in trailers), having no tenure ? the teachers don't even get a contract ? and by laying off?teachers?when they aren't performing.? So, it was somewhat sad, at the end, when Couric says,
But is the model working? When the fifth graders took the New York State math and reading exams, the results were disappointing. On average, other schools in the district scored better than TEP.? Some people watching this might be thinking, "Hey, they're paying teachers $125,000 a year. They've attracted the best and the brightest. These results don't really add up."
The camera cut back to Vanderhoek and to my eyes I saw the previously self-assured and articulate young man look as if the blood had drained from his face. I thought I saw sweat.?
"We don't have a magic wand,? he said,?a bit?defensively. ?We're not gonna take kids who are scoring below grade level and bring them up in a year."?
Part of the shock here, of course, was that the piece had seemed so sympathetic to what TEP was trying to do -- even the teacher who was dismissed said she was "relieved" to be going -- and part of it was that I'm still not used to the Today Show ?Katie being the gotcha girl.?
"You're the head of the school, the principal," she pressed. "Why do you get to keep your job?"
This could have been a disastrous television moment for Vanderhoek,?but he rallied:
Ultimately to build an excellent organization is going to take time. And if that doesn't happen let's say four years from now, then I shouldn't keep my job.
This is one of the big money questions in education: how long do you wait?? And what are you waiting for? Can you tell in a year whether a teacher will work or not?? Or a principal?? Or a law? Or a school system???Who makes the decision? How do they make it?
One of the hallmarks of a free market, because its engine is run (in theory)?by the invisible hand of non-coerced individual associations, is its nimbleness. Broken on Monday, fix it on Tuesday -- or you might lose your customer base. With government entities, because they are, by definition, monopolies,?there is no such free association ? need more money, order it up with taxes or the printing press.? I'm old enough to remember, "Love it or leave!"??At least it's working the way Madison and his cohorts designed the thing: it is not supposed to be nimble (they?just never?expected it to be so?gosh-darn big.) ?Broken on Monday, form a committee on Tuesday, maybe Wednesday, filibuster next month, etcetera. So, Which standard should apply to The Equity Project? is the one-hundred-and-twenty-five-thousand dollar question.
--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow