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Charter With High Teacher Salaries Improved Achievement, Study Finds

Students attending a high profile charter school that pays teachers eye-popping, six-figure salaries, did better than students with similar characteristics located in other New York City schools, according to recently released research. 

The middle school students attending The Equity Project school in Manhattan had statistically significant test-score gains in math, English arts, and science by 2012-13, the school's fourth year of operating, according to the report from Mathematica Policy Research. Those gains translate to about a year and half of extra math learning for the first cohort of students at the school, and about two-thirds of a year in reading.

It's something of a big turnaround for the school, which initially started off posting lower scores than comparison students in neighboring schools. 

Teachers at TEP make annual salaries of $125,000, compared to about $64,000-$75,899 for a New York City teacher with five years' experience. They receive weekly professional development that's based on observing one another's teaching, have two planning periods a day, and receive bonus pay based on schoolwide achievement growth. As a tradeoff to offset the higher salaries, teachers have somewhat larger class sizes, around 31 students compared to New York City's average of 27.

They are selected through a process that includes a teaching audition. And they face heightened pressure to perform: More than a third of teachers were not rehired for a second year at the school. 

The study used a quasi-experimental methodology in which TEP students were matched to students with similar demographic characteristics attending other neighborhood schools. Then, researchers followed the students from the 2009-10 school year through 2012-13, comparing the achievement gains made by TEP students and non-TEP students, and incorporating each successive yearly cohort of students.

Importantly, the TEP didn't expel any students or use out-of school suspensions, and had a similar attrition rate to that of comparable schools. That matters because charters face a lot of scrutiny over allegations that they use selective enrollment techniques and "push out" struggling students.

Early results from the school were not promising. After two years of enrollment, average math achievement outcomes were lower than those of the comparison groups for both years, and lower for the first cohort in English/language-arts. But by years three or four, though, achievement outcomes were consistently positive in both subjects. 

Here are two charts that illustrate the school's progress.The first shows TEPs math achievement gains; notice that the negative coefficients turn positive by year 3. The second translates the achievement results into years of learning. (Take it with a grain of salt, since scholars differ about whether such transcriptions are legitimate.) 

TEP_math_fixed.JPG
TEP_Translation.JPG

What's not clear is exactly what produced these gains or what changes the school made over time to prod them. Generally speaking, it's difficult to disentangle the potential impacts of lots of initiatives at once—in this case, that includes the specific impacts of teacher selection, the higher pay, and the weekly professional development. There were also year-to-year changes in programming, with Latin being dropped after the first year and more PE provided.

The Mathematica study doesn't look at qualitative differences between TEP and other schools.

The research was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a supporter of charter schools. (The Gates Foundation also provides support for coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week.)

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