Sunday, May 15, 2011

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries

This recent NYT op ed, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries", makes a few good points, but mostly has things all wrong.  Yes, we should pay some teachers more – but not ALL teachers in lockstep, as Klein convincingly argues in his article.  Nowhere do the authors of the NYT op ed acknowledge that there are differences among teachers (some are stars and underpaid, while others are lousy and therefore overpaid); or that math teachers should be paid more than gym teachers; or that there should be "hardship pay" for top teachers willing to teacher in the toughest schools.  Instead, the article is filled with slaps at reform, trite clichés, and misguided analogies.  For example, get a load of this comparison they authors make in the opening paragraphs:

WHEN we don't get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don't blame the soldiers. We don't say, "It's these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That's why we haven't done better in Afghanistan!" No, if the results aren't there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don't like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don't like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

Let me propose an alternative analogy, using a different military analogy: I view great teaching as a skill similar to a highly skilled profession like being a fighter pilot.  Imagine for a moment that we hired, trained, evaluated and promoted/fired pilots the way we do teachers – what would it look like?  Well, we'd start by recruiting most pilots from the bottom third of college graduates, then putting them through utterly useless training schools, then immediately upon graduation giving them in the toughest assignments, with little or no support or mentoring, then ranking 99% of them satisfactory every year, firing only 1 in a 1,000 for poor performance, and basing everything about assignments, pay, etc. purely on seniority. 

Such a system would of course be a disaster: some pilots would be great, but some would be dreadful – and they'd be the most likely ones to stick around – resulting in, say, 10% of all fighter jets needlessly crashing every year (not to mention jets bombing the wrong targets, etc.).  OF COURSE if this were happening, there would be a hue and cry, and everyone would rightly point fingers at the pilots who were doing terrible jobs.  However, in addition, we'd have to look beyond the people on the front line – the ENTIRE SYSTEM IS BROKEN, from start to finish!

I wrote about this topic, using doctors in my analogy, in my February Huffington Post article, Rebutting Seven Myths About Teach for America(

In an ideal world, the teachers in this country would go through a rigorous development program, as doctors do, that would look something like this:

1.      Ed schools would be highly competitive (the nations with the highest achieving students like Finland and Singapore only take teachers from the top 10 percent of college graduates);

2.      Ed schools would be rigorous and provide students with real preparation;

3.      Graduates would have to pass a tough exam demonstrating that they'd mastered the content;

4.      New teachers would enter a carefully controlled and monitored environment, with seasoned mentors by their side to make sure they learned (and did no harm);

5.      Effective teachers would be rewarded and given more responsibility; and

6.      Ineffective ones would be given additional support and, if that didn't work, counseled out.

In our dysfunctional, Alice-in-Wonderland education world, not one of these six things happens with any regularity.

I also HIGHLY question the statistics about teacher pay that the authors present in the op ed, as it surely doesn't include the enormously valuable (and costly) benefits that teachers – and, increasingly, ONLY teachers – receive:

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we're serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

At the moment, the average teacher's pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers' salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

Here are the real statistics, from Klein's article:


Finally, coming on top of these other senseless policies is the remarkable way that benefits and seniority drive overall teacher compensation. It's possible for a teacher in New York City to retire at 55 and draw down an annual pension of more than $60,000, plus lifetime health benefits for herself and her family. The pension is not subject to New York State or local taxes and goes up with cost-of-living increases. The huge value of this lifetime stream of benefits is rarely mentioned when we talk about teachers' compensation, but the teachers are well aware of it and act rationally in response to it. What we end up with is both a form of lock-in for employees and an enormous long-term financial exposure for the taxpayers.


The impact of the lock-in shapes the entire compensation system, because the "big" money comes only after a certain number of years—in New York City, for example, many teachers get their full pension after working 25 years, and a far smaller pension if they work for only 24 years. As a result of backloaded policies like this, after 10 years fewer than 1 percent of teachers leave the system, and after 15 years only about 0.1 percent leave. Many have candidly told me they are burned out, but they can't afford to leave until their pension fully vests. So they go through the motions until they can retire with the total package.


Aggravating the perverse incentive of the benefit lock-in is the nature of almost all pay increases in public education, which are either automatic if you stay another year or so, or take 30 college credits; or across-the-board percentage raises—for example, 10 percent over three years, meaning that every veteran teacher making $80,000 gets an $8,000 increase, while every beginning teacher making $40,000 gets a $4,000 increase.


None of these pay increases makes sense. Why pay someone more for simply working another year or for taking a few courses? Starting last year, Mayor Bloomberg refused to give teachers in New York a raise, because he was facing budget cuts. But the overall pay for teachers still went up nearly 3.5 percent automatically, simply for longevity and college credits. (According to a Department of Education internal analysis, the average NYC teacher works fewer than seven hours a day for 185 days and costs the city $110,000—$71,000 in salary, $23,000 in pensions, and $16,000 in health and other benefits.)


April 30, 2011

The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries


San Francisco

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