November 23, 2003

Pay teachers what they are (or aren’t) worth

By: Eric Wearne

As a first year high school English teacher in a suburban county outside Atlanta, I was making more money than most of my friends who had majored in Finance or Management and were working in the business world. By our third year out of college, though, most of them had passed me by, and were eyeing their next promotion or bonus or raise, while I was watching my county pay scale and becoming increasingly depressed about the few hundred dollars my salary would increase the next school year.

My idealism at age 20 had turned a bit sour by age 24. While this cruel (yet very predictable) twist of fortune was frustrating, what was more frustrating was the fact that no amount of effort in raising student achievement or any other improvement in performance would help me or any other teacher catch up financially.

Of all places, the front page of the Democratic Leadership Council’s website includes an article calling for changes in the way teachers are paid. The author recommends, among other things, that our teacher pay system can be improved by:

  • giving higher salaries or bonuses to teachers who will work in “tough” schools;
  • paying more to teachers in special needs areas (like math, science and special ed);
  • paying more for demonstrated gains in student achievement, instead of just years of service and degrees;
  • giving school leaders more authority to set teachers’ salaries

Many teachers would be shocked at the suggestion that some of them should be paid differently than others. Many are already shocked that their states are starting to require them to prove their students are actually learning in their classrooms through achievement tests. Maybe teachers would be a little more enthusiastic, though, if there were also some personal incentives to improve their results.

The pay structure we use for teachers is damaging to our schools and, by extension, to our students. The only “market” for teachers, such as it is, involves teachers choosing between districts with low pay scales (generally urban and rural districts) and districts with less-low pay scales (mostly suburban districts). Teachers get no rewards for working harder. There is no extra reward available for working in a “tough” district. The only reward comes by lasting a long time, which actually is an incentive for teachers to take it easy, to pace themselves and to head for the richer suburbs so they don’t burn out after three years, as two thirds of them now do.

An across the board pay raise is not the answer to this problem. This suggestion often comes from people who also call for “fully funding” our public schools, (whatever that means), even though school spending across the U.S. has more than tripled in real terms since the 1960’s. Such a raise wouldn’t improve student achievement much (if at all), wouldn’t create any incentive for teachers to excel, and would be prohibitively expensive, though the NEA would probably support it anyway. For example, with about 98,000 teachers working in
Georgia public schools today, a tiny $10 a month raise per teacher would cost the state more than ten million dollars! Maybe I’ve grown too cynical, but I doubt giving teachers money for an extra half a tank of gas a month would cause many business majors to change their career plans, even if the states had the money to give them.

One better answer would be to create some form of career ladder for teachers, beyond simply earning more and more degrees or certificates. This could include tying raises and/or promotions to some form of value-added assessment (where teachers are rated according to how much their particular students improve over the course of the school year). A lot of teachers would welcome the chance to analyze and improve their personal practices.

Another good idea would be to ease certification requirements, which are a huge obstacle and a disincentive for many smart people who would like to teach. The prospective salaries are simply not worth the time one has to invest to get certification. After coming out of a teacher certification program at a research university in Florida, I moved to Atlanta to teach. But before I could be officially certified there, I had to get a letter from my university “certifying” that I was “certifiable” to teach in Georgia, and only then could I be hired and start working on the extra requirements I needed for a full Georgia certificate. No Child Left Behind calls for “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom, but there is no reason that should have to mean “state certified.”

Whatever form it takes, the most important thing to do is to experiment and find a system that works. This does not mean punishing teachers, either, but giving them concrete incentives to improve their practices and raise their students’ achievement; it means allowing a real market for teachers’ services to evolve. Teachers groan (often rightly) every time they hear their principal say in a faculty meeting, “I know it’s just one more thing to ask you to do.” Most teachers do work very hard and are overstretched. But relying on intrinsic rewards (“I teach because I love the kids”) only works so many times. Under a more merit-based system, there would be a real motive for teachers to keep doing “just one more thing.” And the real winners would be the students.

Eric Wearne is a PhD student in Educational Studies at Emory University focused on education policy and history. He is a research assistant for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in Atlanta where he has written on charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice. He taught high school English and Debate for four years outside Atlanta.