CROWN HEIGHTS — Shimon Waronker thinks Americans aren't getting their money's worth when it comes to education.
The head of Crown Heights' 2-year-old New American Academy would know — he negotiated a special contract that allows New American to pay teachers far more than at a traditional district school.
But for Waronker, who made his name turning around troubled public schools, all the money in the world can't replace a good teacher.
"The key, in my opinion, to student achievement is teacher quality — you could have a four to one ratio, but if you don’t have a quality teacher, forget about it." Waronker said.
"Only Switzerland outspends us in terms of education. What we’re paying for, we’re not getting results."
Prior to opening P.S. 770 in 2010, Waronker was the head of M.S. 22 in the Bronx. After early success with that school, he attended Harvard's Graduate School of Education before returning to New York.
The father of six is passionate about dismantling what he calls the Prussian-Industrial design — the rigid hierarchy of students, teachers and administrators that dominates public education in the United States and around the world.
The New American model, which does away with most administrators and combines four teachers with 60 students in a single, massive classroom, has drawn praise from the Department of Education, the United Federation of Teachers, and now the New York State Department of Education, which recently granted his team its very first charter.
Q: You negotiated a side contract to pay top teachers more — why?
A: If you have a great teacher it can totally alter the life of a kid, but the pay structure that exists today doesn’t attract top-level people. There’s a charter that pays $125,000 a year for teachers, but that doesn’t bring in new people. You need to develop great teachers. You need to attract them, develop them and retain them.
We have a master teacher in every classroom. The role of that teacher is to develop the other teachers. We don’t have substitutes here because substitutes are a waste of time and resources. What happens if a teacher’s absent? Nothing gets done. Here, another teacher steps in.
If you have great teachers, all else follows.
Q: What else makes New American Academy different?
A: (Each class) is 60 students, and those students are broken into three groups and the kids then rotate amongst the teachers. We have a level of differentiation that’s unheard of — not only can we group the kids by similar ability levels, we can further hone in on exactly where the child is struggling and help them.
In the morning we do homogenous instruction. In the afternoon we do heterogeneous instruction.
Last year in our kindergarten class, we had three kids reading on a third-grade reading level. Here, those kindergartners were reading third-grade texts. That’s the advantage of having 60 kids in one group, because of the bell curve you can actually have larger groups of students who have similar level of ability.
Kids sometimes accelerate their growth, so teachers actually move the kids based on their growth. They assess the kids constantly. Teachers here know the kids really well because they know them over an extended period of time — they loop with them.
Q: Can you explain a little bit more about the Prussian-Industrial design as it relates to education?
A: The values of our country are that your voice is important, but school is not designed for that — it’s designed to say shut up and listen. Stay in your seat.
King Frederick the Great of Prussia asked how do you rule without a gun? Through isolation and fear. Children seated in rows couldn't talk, they were deathly afraid of teachers. Teachers were in isolation, they really didn’t know what was happening in other classrooms, they were afraid of the principal. The principal was isolated, and they were deathly afraid of the superintendent, all the way up to the king.
I was in the army — when you capture enemy soldiers, one of the ways you have to manage them is to keep them quiet, keep them separated, because otherwise they could figure out ways to escape or kill you. These are systems of control.
The Prussian design was designed to destroy relationships. Each time when you had a new teacher, you may have had a better teacher. When people are married, they’re often looking for something better. School is designed to make you think that long-term relationships are not what life is about. I’ve been married with my wife 16 years — she’s more beautiful to me now than she was 16 years ago.
We need relationships and love just like plants need water and sun. We can create system designs that are good for adults and children — I just think the Prussian Industrial design was designed for something totally different.