Teacher Pay: Size Isn’t the Issue

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

On NRO yesterday, David Freddoso, author of The Case Against Barack Obama, launched a broadside against Obama as a faux education reformer. I have no interest in dissecting the details of Obama’s record on education, but Freddoso’s line of attack on the subject of teacher pay seems to me to miss the point.

Freddoso begins by quoting Obama asserting that schools in a Chicago neighborhood were closing early because the district couldn’t afford to pay teachers for a full day. Freddoso notes that teachers in that neighborhood are paid an average of $83,000; more than a quarter of them make over $100,000. (These figures don’t include administrators, who make even more.) Somehow, Obama managed not to mention this when bemoaning the district’s inability to pay for a full school day.

Freddoso may well be right about what’s happening that particular district; I don’t know. However, he goes on to build a more general case that Chicago teachers citywide are making big bucks while the system destroys children’s lives, and therefore Obama’s close alliance with the Chicago teachers’ union is similar in kind to his alliances with Tony Rezko, the Chicago machine, and other practitioners of “systemic corruption.”

I certainly agree with Freddoso that the government school monopoly, in Chicago as everywhere else, consumes large quantities of taxpayer money while destroying children’s lives. I’ll also agree that the teachers’ unions bear a lot of the blame. But is the size of teacher salaries a serious problem?

Freddoso says the entry level salary for a Chicago teacher is $43,702 plus $3,059 in pension contributions. Is that really so much, considering that 1) Chicago is an urban area, where the cost of living will be high, and 2) teachers have to have a college degree and specialized training in order to enter the profession?

Freddoso goes on to note that once these starting Chicago teachers gain four years’ experience, they’ll make $60,000, not including increases for additional education credentials. Since the large majority of teachers do pursue (educationally worthless) additional credentials in order to get these “pay for paper” salary increases, it would be good to know how much those salary increases are worth in Chicago. But setting aside that question, given that the empirical evidence suggests teachers get significantly more effective in their first few years, a bump up to $60,000 doesn’t seem all that bad (remembering again that we’re in an urban area).

In short, while teachers in Chicago – like teachers nationwide – are certainly paid well, they aren’t benefitting from “systemic corruption” a la Tony Rezko or the disgraced management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the “Friends of Angelo” at Countrywide, all of whom are connected to Obama.

Yet Freddoso writes about teacher pay as though being a teacher is some sort of scam. “Chicago teachers have terriffic pay and hours, and summer vacations,” and we should ask whether Obama’s link to the Chicago teachers’ union is “corrupting,” since this link is “part of a much braoder pattern that characterizes his political career, as with his backing of Chicago’s machine bosses, his sponsorship of legislation and earmarks to help such donors as Tony Rezko, and his support for special-interest subsidies in Washington.”

Freddoso is right that in addition to salary, teachers enjoy extremely strong job protection and shorter work hours, and this should be factored in when we consider whether or not they are “underpaid.” Still, it’s hardly fair to lump them in with Tony Rezko. Moreover, if the issue is not per se whether teachers are well paid, but accountability for the use of taxpayer funds (as the “corruption” meme suggests), then teachers’ job security and summer vacations don’t seem very relevant.

The real problem with teacher pay is not size, but technique. That is, it’s not primarily how much we pay, but how we pay. Teachers in the U.S. aren’t paid like professionals, they’re paid on a factory worker scale, with ability and performance totally unrelated to compensation. (Even calling this a “factory worker” scale is unfair to factory workers, since many factories have now adopted some reforms to the old pre-globalization pay system.) And it’s this pay structure, not the amount we pay, that’s the real problem. The system is designed to attract the lowest performers – since high performers can always earn more elsewhere while low performers always earn more by becoming teachers.

Freddoso mentions the subject of merit pay in passing, but only so he can assert that, on account of his alliance with the union, Obama’s merit pay plan is a toothless tiger. Whether it is or it isn’t, merit pay is a much more important issue than pay levels. If pay were tied to performance, high teacher salaries would be good – in fact, given the large role that teacher quality has been shown to play in student outcomes, if pay (and hiring) were linked to performance I would say the current pay levels would be too low.

Having said I would steer clear of evaluating his record as a whole, I will note that Obama’s openly supporting merit pay represents real progress, even if we agree with Freddoso that this support is only for show. It’s more of a show than any previous Democratic nominee has made, if I’m not mistaken (though I don’t trust my memory too far on this). Obama was actually booed by the NEA when he mentioned his views on differential pay during his speech accepting their endorsement. He didn’t have to mention teacher pay reform in his endorsement acceptance, but he did. That counts for something.

It’s also worth mentioning that the unions benefit far more than individual teachers from the direction the system has been moving in. Over the past few decades, while teacher salaries have stagnated, the number of teachers hired by the system has soared. That’s a mixed bag for teachers – it presumably means less work for each teacher, but it also exerts downard pressure on salaries. However, it puts big bucks in the unions’ pockets, with no real downside for them.

If I had to guess, I’d say Freddoso is overreacting against the widespread claim that teachers are “underpaid.” Since teachers are in fact well paid, this myth certainly does grate on anyone who knows the facts – especially so since this myth is even more obviously at odds with the facts than most education myths, and yet (or perhaps I should say “and therefore”) challenging it tends to produce an especially nasty and vicious response.

But let’s not get drawn into the opposite error. As Martin Luther is said to have said, if a man falls off his horse on the left side, the next time he rides he’ll fall off on the right side. Teachers aren’t paid too little or too much – they’re paid the wrong way. The problem here isn’t teachers, it’s unions.

6 Responses to Teacher Pay: Size Isn’t the Issue

  1. Peter says:

    Surely the problem is that the teachers are paid by an effective monopoly, or more strictly set of geographical monopolies.

    There is no way to solve teacher pay within this system. Seniority-based systems lead to the problems listed, not allowing the best people to be rewarded.

    Conversely, the lack of external competition, and the bureaucratic system of management make corruption and favoritism a significant risk for “merit” based systems. For every alternative pay system, there is way to work it, and a way that it can become counter productive with unintended consequences.

    Now if there was competition, schools that used ineffective remuneration policies would loose their best staff, and customers (parents and children) would go elsewhere. Then we wouldn’t be arguing about it, the market would be busy fixing it!

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, except I’m not sure I would identify the lack of competition as “the” problem. I would rather say that it’s the underlying problem that either causes or exacerbates every other problem in the system.

    I wonder if Aristotle would say that the structure of teacher pay is the “formal cause” of low teacher quality, while lack of competition is the “efficient cause.” (The “final cause” would be the mystique of public education, I suppose.)

  3. […] nightmare. Across the country, the government school system is shot through with featherbedding, rewards for mediocrity, and absolute job protection for even the worst teachers, all courtesy of your friendly […]

  4. William M. Fox says:

    Placing almost exclusive emphasis upon test-score improvement as a basis for rewarding teachers is patently unfair and, when coupled with inadequate performance-appraisal systems, drives teachers toward unethical behavior or departure to other pursuits.

    A primary reason the public has not been more supportive of higher funding for education has been the poor relationship between better funding and higher educational quality as revealed by a number of studies.

    Use of an appraisal system based upon the following guidelines should go a long way toward turning things around.

    Those associated with schools, need to fairly identify true “stars” and “inadequate performers” as one of the bases for:

    justifying good pay for outstanding teachers,

    providing for self-guidance on the part of newcomers and present staff,

    and providing an important basis for terminating those who cannot, or will not, measure up.

    Research findings show that evaluators achieve much better agreement about who are Stars and Inadequate Performers than they do about who are Average, Above-Average, and Below-Average performers. Yet, placing individuals in the middle-three categories is a time-consuming, often arbitrary, and resentment-causing activity that most evaluators dislike having to do. Also, clearly, an average performer in a superior organization deserves much more recognition than an average performer in an inferior one. No wonder that many teachers and their unions oppose conventional merit-rating systems!

    To avoid a popularity contest, assure greater fairness, and provide for constructive self-guidance, there should be behavioral documentation for both Star and Inadequate Performer nominations via the Critical Incident Technique.
    To lay the groundwork for this, students, parents, veteran administrators, and experienced teachers should be polled at to what specific, observable behaviors they associate with outstanding and inadequate performance for each important aspect of a teacher’s job.

    Then, required behavioral documentation for Star and Inadequate-Performer nominations from fellow teachers, adminstrators, students, and parents should be based upon the most agreed-upon behaviors, and the agreed-to relative weights that should be assigned to these.

    The results of this analysis can also constructively guide the initial training and subsequent selection of teachers, as well as, provide a much-needed, qualifying context for the currently over-stressed evaluation factor of test-score-improvement.

    This approach also sets the stage for more productive review sessions between the rater and ratee. Since the ratee has a sound basis for self-rating, the session should start with the rater asking “How do you rate yourself for this past period through the presentation of relevant, supporting behaviors?” No rater can be all-knowing, so if behaviors are mentioned that she or he is not aware of, the rater can postpone giving his or her evaluation to provide time to check out the validity of the assertions, if this seems necessary.

    A sound behavioral basis for rating also facilitates the use of motivational goal setting during the review session. For example, if the ratee wants to be a Star, what specific behavioral goals does she or he plan to adopt by such and such a time? If stardom is not the goal, which specific, Inadequate Performer behaviors will he or she need to avoid?
    This approach permits a rater to be more of a counselor and coach, than one who appears to sit in arbitrary judgment.

    For discussion of relevant research and related citations, see: “Improving Performance Appraisal Systems” by William M. Fox, NATIONAL PRODUCTIVITY REVIEW, Winter 1987-88, pages 20-27.

    William Fox
    Professor Emeritus
    Department of Management
    University of Florida
    (352) 376-9786

  5. Greg Forster says:

    A few questions:

    1. Currently, the role of test scores in teacher hiring, pay, promotions, and firing is zero. How then is it “over-stressed” as an “evaluation factor”?

    2. Why is it “patently unfair” to evaluate professionals based on whether their work produces the result it’s supposed to, rather than on their “behaviors”? Do we evaluate professionals in any other field this way?

    3. You write that the public has not been supportive of higher funding because of the lack of a relationship between higher funding and better quality, “as revealed by a number of studies.” What measure of “quality” did those studies use? If the measure of quality was not quantitative, how did those studies measure the relationship? If it was quantitative, is it fair to measure quality using quantitative outcome measurements when evaluating the relationship between spending and quality, but “patently unfair” to measure quality that way when rewarding teachers?

    4. You say that evaluators reach better agreement about the highest and lowest performers than about middle performers. How do you determine whether their agreement in these highest and lowest cases really aligns with teacher quality? If the evaluators are the only “fair” measure of quality, how do you evaluate their evaluations?

    5. Since the evaluators are all themselves part of the same dysfunctional system we’re trying to improve, why should we trust their evaluations as the only permissible standard by which to improve it?

    6. What reason do we have to believe that students, parents, administrators and teachers are all equally knowledgeable about what behaviors are associated with quality? In the absence of rigorous empirical research using quantitative measures, what reason do we have to believe that they can connect outcomes to specific teacher behaviors at all? If administrators and teachers already knew which behaviors worked, wouldn’t they already be promoting those behaviors?

    7. Why is it “patently unfair” to evaluate teachers based on quantitative measures of the outcomes they produce, but fair to evaluate them based on whether their behavior conforms to a set of standards constructed from a poll of students, parents, administrators and teachers?

    8. If students, parents, administrators and teachers fail to agree in the poll on which behaviors are desirable, who gets to decide? And to whom are those decision-makers ultimately accountable?

    9. You write that when teachers are evaluated, evaluators may investigate whether the evaluatees are accurately characterizing their own behaviors “if this seems necessary.” Would the default practice be to simply evaluate teachers based on their own characterizations of their behaviors? What would constitute sufficient grounds for it “seeming necessary” to check their accuracy, and how would the check be conducted?

    10. You want an evaluator to be “more of a consellor and a coach than one who appears to sit in arbitrary judgment.” Will the evaluator have the power of passing judgment on the merits of the teacher, or not?

  6. […] also supports reform on the crucial issue of differential pay. In every profession except education, your pay depends on […]

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