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On Teachers and Pay

As students and teachers head back to school this fall, (classes start Tuesday here at Messiah College, though many area high schools have started or plan to start Monday) I thought it appropriate to point interested readers to an article from the New York Times this spring. I fear that it may be behind the login wall, so I’ll offer a couple of snippets here, though you can sign up for a free account to read a few articles a month if you really want to check out the full article. The initial article was written as the debates and protests were raging hot in Wisconsin. (For a teacher’s perspective, see the guest post on this blog from a friend of mine in Wisconsin.)

Nicholas D. Kristof writes that rather than teachers being the problem and being forced to take pay cuts, the reality is that we should pay teachers more. Here is a taste of his premise:

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

After citing the sad fact that smart women used to end up as teachers since that was the only professional that was easy for them to access due to the glass-ceiling in much of industry. Now these women have more options where they can make much more money, and this has caused a disturbing trend that the weaker students are now the ones becoming teachers.

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

Everyone knows that good teachers make a difference, but how much?

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

It also makes a real difference in future earnings. And, lest you suspect this is a left-wing, liberal, union-living writer:

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Kristof then compares our treatment of teachers (especially with regard to pay) with the treatment of teachers in some of the most successful countries based on student learning metrics. Pay and public opinion (respect) for teachers are, in his view, a big reason for their success at attracting the best and brightest to the teaching profession.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

I don’t know that many would be signing up for much larger class sizes, but I suppose if the options were larger class sizes at their current pay or larger class sizes with a large increase and pay and respect, most would take the second option. I do know many of my friends who teach high school take on side writing or consulting projects, or teach nights at a community college, to make more money to help support their family. I include myself in that. The pay here isn’t terrible, but doing side consulting work does help to offset some of the money I gave up to take the position here at Messiah. I could have made much more money working in industry. Something is wrong when some of the best teachers I know can’t support their families on what they earn. If pay were based on a merit system of some sort, they would probably be among the highest paid teachers at their schools!

Now, I realize that “merit pay” can be a slippery slope. We cannot simply measure merit based on performance on exams, or we are likely to have more cheating scandals like the recent one in Georgia. There must be some sort of peer-evaluative process by which those who really know teaching can determine whether the teacher is effective. I’ll leave that process for others to discover, but I can tell you that the good teachers I have made a huge difference, while the poor teachers also made an impact. Part of the reason I never liked Physics was a high school teacher that I found boring. He never convinced me, despite my advanced math ability in high school (I was taking AP Calculus while taking honors Physics), that Physics was interesting and worth my time. This colored my view of Physics as a discipline, and I still think that I should have been better at Physics than I ever was.

As for respect, when I went to school, from elementary up, my parents made it clear that they respected my teachers and would almost always believe the teacher over me. They were there to support the teacher, and it was my job to fall in line. Too often, I hear stories of the exact opposite from my friends that are teachers. I’ve even had occasional encounters of my own. On one occasion a parent called me telling me all the stories that her daughter told her about the course, and couldn’t bring herself to believe that the truth was very different from the story her daughter (a senior at Messiah) had given her. There was no respect for me in the conversation. She clearly believed that I didn’t know how to teach, and was singling her daughter out for poor treatment.

If we would pay our good teachers better, and show them more respect, our strongest students might be willing to put in the work it takes to be a good teacher. This would clearly result in students getting better instruction, and having a much better view of learning. How can we get this started?

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