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Big Think Interview With Zeke Vanderhoek
Zeke is the founder and chairman of Manhattan GMAT, a national GMAT test-preparation company. The company employs over 100 administrative and instructional staff, has classroom centers in 7 major US cities, while serving over 6000 students in 2008. Zeke began his educational career as a 6th and 8th grade teacher at I.S. 90, a public middle school in Washington Heights, New York City. Zeke has a B.A. from Yale University and a Masters in Philosophy & Education from Teachers College at Columbia University.
In January 2007, Zeke stepped down as CEO of Manhattan GMAT and began the process of founding The Equity Project (TEP) Charter School, a 480-seat public middle school which will serve at-risk student in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. TEP was granted a 5-year charter by New York State in January 2008. In his spare time, Zeke plays piano and guitar and eats almond croissants at his local bakery. He currently lives in Harlem with his wife Stephanie and daughter Ella.
Topic: Teach For America
Zeke Vanderhoek: It was a phenomenal experience. I think that during the first year the learning curve was, like most first year teachers, tremendous. And I got what I wanted, which was to be thrown in and to sort of thrive or not thrive based on my own abilities. So, I got the challenge that I was looking for. Teach for America itself has evolved a great deal since I was a core member and I think they are a phenomenal organization. But my experience was really an experience of just a first year teacher in New York City hired by the city, essentially. Teach for America placed me and offered some support but ultimately it was me and 32 sixth graders.
I was a teacher in a school that was pretty chaotic, so for me it was actually great because I got to close my classroom door, nobody knew what I was doing, and I got to be creative and experiment and also find what worked for me. I had a phenomenal mentor who would sit at the back of the room once a week and then debrief with me and he must have saved me from reinventing the wheel. So that was a really positive takeaway. In terms of the school environment itself what I took away was that there are pockets of greatness in a lot of schools. There were colleagues of mine who were phenomenal but to a large extent they are the exception not the rule in an under-resourced urban school.
My own experience at the middle school, the public middle school that I taught in, was that there were core members like myself who were placed in the school and there were other teachers who had nothing to do with Teach for America and we got along very well. There was little, “Oh, you were placed to this program or you weren’t.” There are a lot of veteran teachers. I mentioned the mentor who was a retired veteran teacher who was just a phenomenal influence on me and my teaching style. So, I think in general Teach for America is a wonderful organization because it gets people into teaching who might not otherwise consider it. And if you look at a lot of Teach for America alumni a lot of us remain in education, many in the classroom, many starting schools and many at as more senior level in administration or in, at the district level.
Question: What makes an effective teacher?
Zeke Vanderhoek: I think a teacher that responded to me as an individual, took an interest in me and my own sort of ideas or my own personality and went beyond just sort of what was in the book. That’s one element and the other element was really I remember my history teacher in ninth grade and 11th grade. She really made you see the world in a different way. So, a great teacher in that sense was somebody who really challenged his or her students to get out from their own world, from their own perspective and see things that they never thought of before, ways of seeing the world.
Topic: The idea
Zeke Vanderhoek: The idea is completely unoriginal. The idea that teachers are the central lever in education is sort of obvious. The idea that we have to respect them and we can’t respect them simply by paying lip service to respecting them is also completely unoriginal. Many, many people have said the country and the education system will not improve until teachers are paid a decent wage. So the idea is sort of common sense. It didn’t come to me in a flash. I think it’s out there in the culture. The only sort of challenge was how to implement it. So when I was in the classroom teaching sixth grade for a couple of years and then eighth grade, one of the things that really appealed to me was the whole idea of public charter schools because public charter schools essentially free teachers and free an administration from the constraints of a large bureaucracy and allow creative individuals to create a school that they think will produce better results and produce better, more educated kids than traditional school so it’s a very entrepreneurial venture, the idea of a public charter school. It really gives people who think they know what they’re doing, and maybe we don’t, but the opportunity to at least see if we can create a school that is outstanding, free from the constraints of a large bureaucracy. And the flip side of course that appealed to me is charter schools at least in theory are really supposed to be held accountable in a way that traditional public schools are not. Public charter schools really have to meet certain goals in order for their charter to be renewed and that’s also very appealing because you can actually see whether you’ve been successful or not.
So, in New York State, if you’re writing a charter you typically get a document for the state that says, here are the goals that you have to put in your charter. There’s not much choice. The goal centers a lot around attendance, standardized test results, parent-teacher-student satisfaction and I think all those are important. Though I will say this, I think the emphasis on standardized tests represents a relatively low bar. If kids are not passing the New York State English Language Arts exam and certainly the school is doing something wrong. However, if they are passing that exam I don’t necessarily think that means the school is a great school. There are a lot of other factors that go into whether the students are learning and whether the school is excellent. Just to give one example, standardized exams have a difficult time assessing whether a student can write which in my view is one of the most important, if not the most important skill that emerges after 12 years of schooling. You much more easily can measure that through something like a writing portfolio where you get a sample of the kid’s writing every 2 weeks in different disciplines and sort of see over the course of the year what was the student writing in September and what was the student writing in June and assessing that for content, for form, for grammar. All of that to me is so much a robust measure of whether the school is being successful and the students are being successful than a standardized test which are important in my view but represent a relatively low bar.
One of the things that we are trying to do is really have the teachers get a lot out of the school environment as well. Obviously that’s the focus of the school. The idea that the school is not just for students, it’s also a place where adults work. I think if you have a school that buys into the methodology that teachers are sort of sacrificial lambs who should do everything in service of the children and shouldn’t negate themselves ultimately you hurt the kids and ultimately you hurt the school environment. So, we’re trying to create a school environment where teachers themselves are viewed as learners and their own growth as learners and as people is developed. One of the ways we do this is we have an annual summer development institute for six weeks where there are no kids. Teachers spend that time reflecting on their own practice. Another example is every five years or so the teachers were required to leave the school for a year and take a sabbatical, a mandatory sabbatical. What do they do during that year? There’s no requirement. They don’t even have to connect it. In fact, we don’t want them to connect it to what they’re doing in the classroom and how it’s going to make them a better teacher. We want them to go skiing for a year if that’s what they want, to go get an art history masters if that’s what they always wanted to do. Get a job, another job. So really we’re really more valuing their own growth as people and they are allowed to have interests outside of teaching.
Question: Why have we traditionally devalued teachers?
Zeke Vanderhoek: I’m not a historian but I know that a lot of the devaluation of the teaching profession has to do with the fact that not so long ago it was really a profession that was only open to women and so culturally the status of the profession was not what it should be. As the workforce opened up to women I think what happened is teaching became instead of something that’s very talented women who couldn’t get other jobs because of the constraints in the culture got, now it was open to anybody and it didn’t pay very well and that talent to a certain extent drained from the profession potentially. This is just a theory. I really have no idea and what you’re left with is pockets of greatness. So you have great teachers throughout the country, phenomenal teachers but ultimately they are the exception not the rule and that’s because we don’t culturally value teachers. People make the mistake of thinking that the salary that we are offering is somehow designed to make a mediocre teacher better. Completely wrong. If you pay somebody more it’s not going to make them a better teacher. That’s completely missing the point of the project. The point of the project is just change the perception of who should become a teacher. It’s to change the sort of lip service mode of, “Oh teachers we really value you” to something concrete. In this culture, money is the signifier of value and so ultimately the goal is to attract more talent into the profession. Right now we draw from the bottom third of college graduates to make up our teaching force and that’s, you know, that’s unfortunate. The goal should be to draw from the top third of the college graduates to make up our teaching force.
I think teaching is one of those professions where there are many people who secretly want to do it and enjoy it when they are up there but don’t really view it as feasible. They can’t support a family. It’s not really realistic to achieve other goals that they may have. So I think teaching has a built in advantage over some other professions where for I’m not, not to pick on lawyers but you know I think there are a lot of people who love the law. But there are a lot of people who go into the law because it pays the bills and it’s a relatively lucrative and respected profession. I mean in that sense I think teaching actually has a great advantage over other professions. The problem is that right now it’s not realistic for a lot of people who are talented to go into it or they don’t view it is realistic and, you know, one of the interesting things with Teach for America is a lot of people who start the program think, Oh, I’ll just do this for a few years but then they fall completely and madly in love with it and stay on for the rest of their career. So that I think is less likely to happen in some other professions but teaching has a certain magic to it that really gives it a lot of advantages.
Question: What makes these teachers worth $125,000?
Zeke Vanderhoek: We hired who we think are eighth grade teachers. We’ll find out. But they have a very extensive track record for the most part. Several of the teachers have over 30 years of experience. The youngest teacher we hired still has seven years of experience in the classroom so one thing is we’re not hiring sort of first year teachers because not that first year teachers can’t be great but the learning curve is, you know, is tremendous in that first year, so we’re hiring veteran teachers. We’re hiring teachers who, you know, we actually visit their classrooms everybody who made the final round we went and saw them and so were hiring teachers who in their classroom developed a certain relationship that was apparent to an outsider with their students. Teachers who are thoughtful practitioners who are reflective about what they are doing in the classroom, who can talk about what they can do in the classroom in a reflective way, in a critical way. They really think about all of the decisions that they make. We are talking about teachers who show that they can really engage students, capture that enthusiasm which is particularly important I think for middle school kids and also teachers who are adaptive creating structures for kids. Middle school kids in particular needs structure and they need a teacher who can manage a classroom through teams, through variety of modalities but those are some of the things that we looked for plus of course we were looking for teachers who have passion about their subject and who could bring that passion and that extensive knowledge to their students.
I would make the case that one of the things about the school that’s very important is we do this on the public dollar. We are a public charter school in New York City. We actually get less money than a traditional public school in New York City and yet we are able to pay teachers 125,000 dollars a year plus a potential bonus based on school wide performance without fundraising for that salary. The only thing that we fundraise for is our facility and that’s because we don’t get a free public facility like every other school gets. But every other cost is absorb or is paid for by our public dollars that we receive. We have simply reallocated those dollars and said, “You know what really we need to be investing on the most important part of the educational experience for students and that’s their teachers. We need to invest in what we call teacher equity hence the name the equity project and yes, we are going to sacrifice some other things to do so. We are not going to have tiny classes.” We have 30 kids in a class. That’s not higher than I’ve experienced as a teacher. In fact it’s a little bit lower, but it’s certainly not small. We are going to do without a lot of the other personnel in the building that typically would be in a school. So, we are going to do a lot of things to make sacrifices in order to be able to invest in what we think is more cost effective in the long run which is investing in the teachers.
Question: What’s the process?
Zeke Vanderhoek: It varies from state to state. So I only really know how to start a charter school in New York and that’s essentially there are three authorizing agencies in New York, the New York City Department of Education, SUNY which is the State University of New York and the board of Regions. You decide who you want to apply to and then you go through their application process. You need a board because charter schools are public schools that are nonprofits, there set ups are nonprofits and you go through the process. When we did it, first we had to write a concept paper. We applied through the New York City Department of Education. They narrow down all the concept papers that they received. Then we went in for an interview. Then we wrote a more extensive application. So the various stages along the way and ultimately it’s a pretty long process. I think it took us close to a year from when we started the process or at least when I started writing the Charter to when we actually got approved and the charter is essentially a contract, it’s a five-year contract so we have a five-year contract with New York State that says, “Hey, we are public school. We receive public money just like the public school down the street. The difference is that we can sort of run how we want to run within certain parameters. We operate the way we want to operate. A good example is we can pay teachers what we want to pay them.” And then at the end of the five years we are evaluated based on whether we’ve met the results, the goals that are laid out on our charter. If we have, we’re offered a renewal for five years if not then we’re shut down.
Question: Can administrators make changes given the current system?
Zeke Vanderhoek: It depends on the public system. New York City happens to have schools that aren’t charter schools but are autonomy schools or empowered schools so the flexibility may or may not be quite as high as what a charter school administrator and staff can make but there are certainly are schools certainly are much more flexible and principals are much more empowered now than New York City public schools than they were say ten years ago. So, again degrees of flexibility vary but I think a lot of the things that might at one time have not been the purview of a school, a principal, now are.
Topic: Reforming our schools
Zeke Vanderhoek: The two things that come to mind initially is I would invest a lot more in teachers and I would intensify schools to do so but the ultimate goal of expanding the talent pool. And the second, and obviously I’m biased because I’m running a charter school, is I think charter schools are phenomenal vehicles for innovation and right now there is sort of inequity in funding for charter schools. Charter schools which are public schools get less money than traditional public schools. In particular, they don’t get facilities, which is a huge barrier to growth. So those are the two things that I would do if somebody somehow put a crown on my head and said you can go do whatever you want in education.
Question: Why do charter schools work?
Zeke Vanderhoek: I think charter schools work and in large measure the reason that they work is that when they don’t work they are allowed to be closed. So I think one of the great things about the charter school model is there is a mechanism for evaluating schools. The schools that are great continue. The schools that are not should be shut down. It’s very hard to do that in the traditional public system. There is no real mechanism for shutting down a traditional public school in a way that makes a lot of sense. I’m sure they are sort of restructuring those schools but that’s very different from shutting it now. So I think one of the reasons charter schools work is not that they are all successful but that there’s a mechanism for evaluating whether the school is successful. You know, there are phenomenal charter schools out there. There are a lot of charter management organizations that have had great results, keep achievement first on commons schools or three that come to mind. There are a lot of mom and pop charter schools out there that have been very, very successful. I don’t know because I don’t really believe anything I read until I walk into a school so I’m not the best person to say, “Oh, this is the best charter school and this is the charter school management organization.” But clearly, there are a lot of charter schools that are doing things that are right.
Question: What’s your take on standardized tests?
Zeke Vanderhoek: I think standardized tests have their place. I am sort of a moderate on this point. I think that one of the good things that they do is they can really help pinpoint when a school is really not being successful. A standardized test that test basic reading where half the kids in the school fail, that’s a huge problem and it exposes that problem and I think that’s a very important part of a standardized test. The flip side is a standardized test is not why we go to school and you know it’s limited in its uses. Schools are places that should be about much more than bubbling in answers to series of questions and I think any grade school that you walk into doesn’t have the feel of a standardized test exam factor and we all know what that feels like, the feel of a great classroom, the feel of excitement in the classroom. So, you know, the issue of standardized test again I think that they can expose problems better than they can sort of show greatness.
Yeah. I think one of the challenges is we need to find other mechanisms for schools to show their success. Standardized test has been the dominant mechanism right now. I don’t think that’s going to go away until we sort of a culture embrace other means. The writing portfolio is a good example. Every subject has its own sort of other ways of demonstrating success. If you’re in music and you play a musical instrument, can you perform in a concert? Can you sing? Can you sight-read? Every discipline has its own ways of demonstrating mastery. I think the challenge is not to say, “Oh, we should get rid of all standardized tests.” But really to complement standardized test with other more creative and more meaningful ways to assess whether students are learning.
Question: How did you transition from teacher to administrator?
Zeke Vanderhoek: Well I don’t view the role of principals purely administrative. I also view it as the role of permanent substitute so I actually get to teach in all classrooms and I don’t think I’ll be happy if it was simply an administrative role. My hope is to be in classrooms a lot, helping teachers, providing feedback, teaching myself so I’m not that daunted by the fact that, “Oh, now I’m going into administrative role.” Because I don’t really view it completely in that way.
Question: How will Equity Project teachers balance their roles?
Zeke Vanderhoek: We’ve been very careful about planning a teacher’s day so that it’s not overwhelming so that’s actually more sustainable than what I experienced when I was teaching sixth grade and teaching four subjects and doing an after school activity etcetera. So, we’ve done few things. One, every teacher at the school only teaches one subject to one grade so they really do have to prepare one thing. If I’m the fifth grade math teacher I teach fifth grade math to four different groups of kids but only have to prepare that one subject. In terms of taking on an outside role every teacher takes on one and only one role that would normally be filled by an administrator. An example is one teacher on each grade level would be the director of assessment. Another example, one teacher on each grade level would be the director of parent involvement and attendance and so one of the ideas behind this is not only that of course we’re eliminating a bunch of administrative who cost money but also that it makes more sense for kids especially kids who are struggling to have fewer points of contact. If a kid is struggling and there’s a parent coordinator, there is an assistant principal, there is a dean, there’s the principal, there’s a social worker, there’s a guidance counselor, they’re are all the student’s teachers. It’s very hard to solve that problem where as if you sort of limit it to maybe the student’s teacher, a social worker and a principal there’s more effective communication in general and there are more pieces that are fit together as opposed to everybody having a tiny little piece which makes it very challenging to solve whatever the issue is.
Recorded on: June 30, 2009
A conversation with the founder and first principal of the Equity Project Charter School in New York City.
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