Teaching Experience and Expert Teachers

I sure hope Jonathan Alter and Jay Mathews, popular journalists, read carefully last year’s New York Times article by Elissa Gootman on the making of the $125,000 a year teacher for the Equity Project Charter School in Washington Heights, NY.

Alter and Mathews, who write regularly on education and teaching, are often found praising young teachers — whom they seem to believe need little formal preparation for teaching in high needs schools — at the expense of older, more experienced teachers who have been trained in education schools and thus “burdened” with pedagogical coursework. (In particular see this recent column by Alter in which he blithely offers the descriptor “older, incompetent teachers.”)

So let’s take a look at teacher recruitment at the Equity Project Charter School, which garnered national headlines by announcing it would pay its teachers $125,000 a year, plus performance bonuses. Who did Zeke Vanderhoek, founder of the innovative school, recruit to teach and earn the professional salaries offered? As Gootman’s story documents, most of his choices are very experienced — dare we say older? — teachers, like Oscar Quintero, who has taught for over 30 years and is in his 60s. Or Judith LeFevre, 54, a science teacher from Arizona, “who spent three decades honing her craft at public, private, urban and rural schools.”

While there are also several 30-somethings on the school faculty, they all have been well prepared over time for teaching in high needs schools. They have proof of their teaching expertise and a strong track record in engaging students in high quality instruction.

What is most striking is Gootman’s description of how the teachers Mr. Vanderhoek found in his nationwide search complement each other as a team. While each of the teachers had special training, skills, and experiences, what matters most is how they fit together as a cohesive unit, ready to serve  their students from Washington Heights. For LeFevre, making the move to NYC from distant Arizona was about “working with a team of master teachers.”

How is the Equity Project Charter School doing at the end of Year One? It’s too soon for an academic progress report, but here’s the NYC Dept. of Education Learning
Environment Survey Report 2009-2010
for the school, which “
provides a view of a school’s learning environment based on responses from parents, teachers, and middle and high school students.” The satisfaction scores are some of the highest in the city.

Skills and experience, collaboration, cultural competency, demonstrated expertise — these are the qualities that matter in today’s teachers, whether they’re 25 or 65. These should be the drivers of education policy and reform — not the notion that somehow, de facto, younger is better.