Which school do you want to support?
Teacher pay is by far the largest cost of operating a school. People choose to become teachers for many reasons, but getting rich is not among them.
As a job, teaching is steady, secure work, but it doesn't pay very well -- especially for new teachers. Many new teachers struggle to find places they can afford to live, and it is common for teachers to work second jobs.
In decades long past, teaching was once perceived as a relatively lucrative profession for women, whose professional options were constrained. This premium has evaporated.
Since about 1980, teacher pay has lagged comparable employment, as described in Lesson 3.1. Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied teacher compensation for many years. Her analysis incorporates data from all over the US, including hours worked, salaries, bonuses and benefits earned. Her models allow for sophisticated comparisons, including differences in compensation by gender, age, experience, union membership and geography. According to Dr. Allegretto's analysis, the scale of the American "teacher wage gap" expanded to a record scale in 2015. In terms of weekly wages, teacher pay lagged comparable work by 23%. Including the value of benefits, the annualized total compensation gap reached a record 11%.
Pay for teachers in America is also low in comparison with pay for teachers in other countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) collects international data about public education, which it summarizes annually in its monumental publication Education at a Glance. The OECD methodology for comparing teacher compensation necessarily differs from Dr. Allegretto's work, but it is consistently applied among the countries studied. According to the OECD research, in virtually all countries pay for teachers has fallen below the average for college-educated workers, but the gap in America is unusually large. For example, in its 2017 edition (Table D3.2) the OECD report estimates that pay for primary teachers in America is about 57% that of comparable workers. In France and Germany, by comparison, it estimates teacher pay at about 90% that of other college-educated workers. International comparisons are always difficult, but it seems clear that teachers in Europe's biggest economies fare better than those in America.
Teacher pay is usually determined by just two things: years worked in the district and number of postgraduate credits earned.
Teachers in virtually all American public schools are compensated according to a rigidly defined “single salary schedule.” If you know the number of years a teacher has worked in a district (“step”) and the number of postgraduate credits the teacher has completed ("column" or "lane"), you can determine his or her pay. Many districts offer a salary increase to teachers who obtain a master’s degree.
The good news is that the widespread use of a single salary schedule has reduced or even erased discriminatory pay practices related to gender and ethnicity. Paired with the teacher pension system (in most states provided through the State Teacher Retirement System, STRS), the salary schedule also has created strong "stay-put" incentives. Seniority is generally counted in terms of the number of years a teacher has worked in a specific district. Changing districts resets the teacher's seniority. Districts generally do not match an experienced teacher's pay when "stealing" a teacher from another district, reflecting the power of seniority-based pay systems in their teacher contracts. At the high end of the experience curve, teachers are paid more than they would be in a strictly competitive marketplace, and there is a real penalty to changing employers. This makes teachers inclined to stay with a district, even if it is a tough place to work, which contributes strongly to the stability of district faculty.
The bad news is that the single salary schedule system is indifferent to expertise, effectiveness, and market conditions. Teachers typically earn the same regardless of whether they teach effectively or ineffectively, whether they teach a subject that requires general knowledge or specialized knowledge, whether they teach many children or a handful, and whether or not they bring out the best in their colleagues.
In the past few years a growing number of voices have argued that major changes to the salary schedule should be “on the table” in district and union dialogue about strategies for change.
Reforms related to teacher pay revise the salary schedule (or replace it altogether) in order to change the incentive structure. (See puzzle graphic for examples.) All elements of an alternative compensation (altcomp) program are controversial, but none more so than performance pay, sometimes also known as "merit pay".
Federal programs have offered competitive grants to accelerate adoption of alternative teacher pay systems, particularly performance pay systems. Under the Bush Administration, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) committed several hundred million dollars to support programs that include a performance pay component. Under the Obama Administration, the much larger Race to the Top (RTT) and School Improvement Fund (SIF) programs also provided support for alternative compensation plans in schools with high concentrations of low-income students.
Pay-based incentives (sometimes called "merit pay") are very common in business. Many businesspeople regard it as self-evident that teacher pay should vary with performance, too. Many teachers, by contrast, regard it as self-evident that teachers aren't in it for the money. In 2009 Daniel Pink brought attention to the motivational risks of pay for performance in his bestseller Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The heart of Pink’s thesis is that intrinsic motivation comes from a desire to achieve mastery, autonomy, and purpose. He presents evidence that conditional pay incentives can actually interfere with that drive.
If your school or district is considering changes to the way teachers are paid, prepare for a bumpy ride, particularly if the program involves judgments about performance. You can add a lot to the conversation by doing the homework.
Evaluations of pay-for-performance trials have not shown widespread results in terms of student learning gains, though the results appear to vary according to program design. Those who hoped for magical results from pay-for-performance trials have been disappointed in Denver, New York and Chicago. A study of schools using the most prominent alternative compensation system, TAP, documented some student learning gains in early trials, but the effects seemed to fade.
Perhaps those experiments were merely too tentative. An evaluation of the most aggressive of all pay-for-performance plans, the IMPACT program in Washington, D.C., appears to show results, mainly by spurring low-performing teachers to quit. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers who comments extensively on flaws in the interpretation of data about education results, questions whether getting teachers to quit actually counts as a positive result.
The Gates Foundation provided grant funding that enabled Aspire, a charter school network, to implement a multi-faceted teacher evaluation system that includes a pay component. Jill Tucker, a California journalist with long experience covering education, describes the Aspire approach in SFGate.
If your school or district is considering changes to the way teachers are paid, prepare for a bumpy ride, particularly if the program involves judgments about performance. You can add a lot to the conversation by doing the homework that others may avoid. It is a much more complex topic than most believe.
Varying models of teacher compensation can lead to passionate conversations, but in California those conversations tend to return to the context: funding for education in California is persistently skimpy. Teacher pay in California suffers ultimately from a lack of funding. Varying the form of pay can't make up for the gap.
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