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Zeke Vanderhoek: Teachers Should Be Free

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.

Recorded on: June 30, 2009

The founder of a new charter middle school in Washington Heights explains the evolution of his radical idea.

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