Rock Star Pay for Rock Star Teachers!

April 28, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Goldwater Institute released a new study today titled New Millennium Schools: Delivering Six-Figure Teacher Salaries in Return for Outstanding Student Learning Gains. In this report, my coauthors Mark Francis, Greg Stone and I argue that the United States has made a tragic error in emphasizing teacher quantity (through efforts to limit average class size) rather than teacher quality. The growing literature on student learning gains clearly demonstrate that teacher quality trumps the impact of class size variation by a wide margin.

The value added literature has revealed stunning equity issues. We don’t attract enough high ability teachers into the profession, we quickly lose many of those we do to frustration or administration, and we distribute most of the remainder to the leafy suburbs. I don’t have a problem with incentive “combat pay” but let’s face it: it is not enough to simply redistribute the limited number of high quality teachers. We need to attract many more of them.

After exploring foreign and domestic examples of systems that make the opposite choice, we propose a solution: a school model which not only employs value added assessment to identify high achieving teachers, but also splits the additional revenue for students after the 20th with the teacher. We propose a 2/3 teacher, 1/3 school split for the 21st student and beyond. This works out to a $5,200 bonus per child.

With this split, our school delivers a six figure teacher salary at 32 students based upon Arizona’s relatively modest funding for charter schools. A class size of 32 students is hardly outside of the historical practice for American public schools, or even the current practice entirely.

There are many practical issues to consider, and variations on the basic model, so please read the study. I’ll write more about the study in the coming days, but the most important point is this: there is plenty of money in the public school system to treat teachers like true professionals and reward them for excellence.

UPDATE: Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuck points out that principals already covertly increase class sizes for additional pay.

What Me Worry?

October 13, 2008


We’ve previously discussed how teachers are relatively well-paid and how the structure of their pay does not promote quality teaching.  To be sure, teachers aren’t paid like doctors, but they also aren’t paid like fast food workers.  If computed on a weekly basis, teachers are paid slightly above the average professional specialty and technical worker (the group in which they are classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).  But on an annual basis they are paid less.

During these times of economic turmoil and anxiety, it is worth emphasizing a non-monetary aspect of teacher compensation that also adds to the relative appeal of the profession — teachers are essentially guaranteed continued employment with a gradually increasing salary regardless of economic conditions.  That certainty of employment with an ever-increasing wage makes up for some of the perceived or real shortcomings of teacher salaries.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the bank employee, insurance agent, or restaurant manager who are about to find themselves out of a job how much salary they would forsake for the guarantee of continued employment.

Teachers are essentially guaranteed employment despite economic conditions because education spending is almost never cut and, even if it is, teachers are the last thing to be cut within the education budget.  In more than half the states the courts have intervened in education budgets, interpreting vague clauses in state constitutions about an “adequate” or “efficient” public education system as compelling certain levels of education spending.  In those states policymakers dare not cut education spending for fear of being slapped by the courts.  In Arkansas, the court has even compelled the state legislature to increase K-12 education spending by at least the level of inflation.  Colorado has a similar mandate.

No one else has this guaranteed claim on resources.  Even other essential state functions, like law enforcement or road construction can be cut if state revenue drops.  Not education.  They’ll get more almost no matter what.

And within the education budget tenured teachers are essentially guaranteed their jobs and ever-increasing pay.  In almost every school district the contract or state law mandate a step and lane pay schedule that pays teachers more every year they remain employed.  If teachers basically can’t lose their jobs and if the system pays them more each year, they enjoy a benefit that almost no other profession enjoys.  When thinking about whether more tax dollars should be devoted to increase teacher compensation further, we should remember these non-monetary benefits of guaranteed employment with ever-increasing salaries.

I should note that university professors are another occupation that enjoy essentially guaranteed employment, although not with a guarantee of annual salary increases.  And I admit that I benefit from this assured employment, even as I think it has negative effects on higher education.  But at the same time you won’t hear me arguing that university professors are woefully underpaid and are entitled to an ever-increasing amount of tax-payer dollars. 

Right now almost all tax-payers are suffering in their own economic circumstances.  It is just unseemly to see educators demanding more and more even as the pool of available resources becomes smaller and smaller.

Teacher Pay: Size Isn’t the Issue

August 12, 2008

(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.