Voices in Education

Not by Salaries Alone
The Equity Project, a new school in New York City, garnered front-page attention in The New York Times recently by hiring eight teachers at an annual salary of $125,000 each. This will be “a test,” the journalist asserted, of whether high salaries will attract “superb teachers” and whether superb teachers will solve the problems of failing public schools. Before this experiment begins, it’s easy to predict the answers to these questions. They are “yes” and “not on their own.”

Given teachers’ relatively low pay, it’s no surprise that the prospect of earning a high salary would attract a large pool of strong applicants. It’s worth noting, though, that the school hired individuals with substantial teaching experience. They were proven—not simply promising—educators. Were schools throughout the nation to offer such salaries, they too would draw many accomplished applicants, for even the most dedicated teachers welcome competitive pay and the status that comes with it.

However, high salaries and strong teachers will not, in themselves, transform a school. It’s not enough to carefully select teachers and then assign them to the isolated classrooms of a conventional egg-crate school. A collection of solo acts—however fine they may be—won’t guarantee that a school will succeed with all its students, particularly if those students have significant learning needs. For improving a school is both an individual and an organizational challenge. Hiring superb teachers is a start, but then those teachers must work together to ensure that the school, as an organization, works well. Together, their classes must add up to a meaningful whole, rather than simply a collection of isolated experiences. The teachers must track all students’ needs and performance across subjects and grades, advising each other about what works and offering extra support where it’s needed. They must work closely with parents and draw upon other community resources to serve their students. Only when superb individuals work in an effective organization can we expect success.

Fortunately, the Equity Project’s founder doesn’t seem naïve or short-sighted. He’s deliberately hired the teachers to work as a team. Those who have been hired express interest in collaborating with other skilled professionals. However, if the school falters or fails, let’s not conclude that high pay for teachers was a mistake, but recognize that it was just not enough.

About the Author: Susan Moore Johnson is the Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.