What Happens to Test Scores When Teachers Are Paid $125,000 a Year?

A charter school in a low-income Manhattan neighborhood tries an experiment—with mixed results.

Ted S. Warren/AP

The Equity Project Charter School opened in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan five years ago, with a fairly simple concept: get rid of extra administrative positions and pay teachers a lot of money—a base salary of $125,000 plus benefits and potential bonuses after two years of teaching. (A New York City public school teacher with five years of experience, by comparison, makes between $64,009 and $75,796.) Even the principal would earn less than the teachers to ensure that the school would be able to rely only on public funding, other than the cost of the school facility and its technology system.

The research group Mathematica Policy Research tracked the experiment at the middle school (fifth through eighth grade), and recently released an analysis, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, of the school’s effectiveness during its first four years. The result: students gradually achieved significantly higher levels of learning, with a major leap during their fourth year, equivalent to more than one and a half grade levels for math and nearly half a year for English.

The data was drawn from standardized testing, comparing students who were demographically and academically similar in surrounding neighborhood schools:

TEP Students Additional Years of Learning in Math, English Language Arts, and Science
Mathematica Policy Research

Even though the Equity Project students fared better compared to their peers at surrounding schools, the Wall Street Journal notes that only 43% of the school’s eighth-graders passed state math exams in 2013. A pretty low number, though a considerable improvement compared with the 26% city-wide pass rate.

Another big difference with the Equity Project, aside from the outsize salaries, is that the school looks for experienced teachers—the median teaching experience was 6 years—compared with charter schools that tend to recruit young teachers with less experience. But the Equity Project’s teachers are still relative newbies compared to surrounding public schools, which have a median teaching experience of 13 years.

The Equity Project’s inclusive strategy meant that teachers became a big part of the school and developing curricula—there was no assistant principal for the first two years, and teachers are very much a part of the student disciplinary process. For example, one form of punishment for a student who speaks disrespectfully to a teacher is for that student to spend the whole day with the teacher. It also means, though, that the teachers are working more than they might at another school.

Their work includes administrative duties, classes of about 31 students in fifth through seventh grades, professional development classes, a six-week summer institute, and stringent performance indicators that dictate whether a teacher may return. Those include taking no more than three personal days and five sick days per year, as well as performance on student and peer surveys. The teachers were very well-compensated and received benefits, but they were not union employees, as is typical of charter schools, and they were not tenured (a topic that’s been controversial in general when it comes to teaching).

And that resulted in turnover—a lot of it.

Number of TEP Teachers Who Were Not Rehired or Resigned
TEP reported that several of the teachers who resigned would not have been hired. These frequencies include only those teachers employed by TEP at the start of the year. (The Equity Project)

Almost half of the teachers in the four years analyzed—20 out of 43—did not return for a second year. Most of them were not rehired, but a small number resigned (the study notes that the school told teachers who wouldn’t be rehired, so they had a chance to resign). By comparison, the study notes, there was about a 27% attrition rate for middle school teachers in New York City public schools.