Paying Teachers Smarter
Let me use this to riff on teacher pay, which is one of the most important things that MUST be reformed to improve our schools. Teachers need to be paid more, but this only makes sense if we pay teachers smarter – which of course we’re not doing in so many ways:
- It’s really dumb to pay teachers the way we’re paying them, with boosts only for seniority and certificates, both of which are proven (once a teacher has roughly four years of experience) to have no impact on student achievement.
- It’s also nuts to back-end-load compensation so much via a big pension, such that no teacher ever leaves as the magical 20 years approaches (even if they’re burned out – teaching is hard! I’m not saying all veteran teachers are burned out, by the way; just that there are far too many burned out teachers hanging on for a pension, while doing enormous harm to children). I recall in NYC that 50% of teachers leave in the first five years, but the annual turnover as 20 years approaches is 0.2% annually.
- It’s also nuts to have lockstep pay among all types of teachers, even when some (e.g., math) command higher salaries in the private sector (for which the schools are obviously competing for talent) than others (e.g. English). I always get a lot of flak when I say this because people think I’m saying English teachers are inferior or “worth” less than math teachers. I’m not (heck, my mom was an English teacher!). Both are equally important. All I’m saying is that school systems should pay enough to attract a good teacher into every position and if the market rate for someone who has a background in math is higher than someone with a background in English, then schools need to pay the former more. Otherwise, if you pay at the higher level, you’re paying more than you need to in order to get good English teachers; or if you pay at the lower level, you won’t get enough good math teachers.
- Lastly, it’s nuts to pay a teacher in a school on the Upper East Side (the wealthiest census tract in the nation) the same as a teacher in a South Bronx school. As Joel Klein once told me, “If I have an opening for a math teacher on the UES, I have dozens of qualified applicants, yet for the same opening at a school in the South Bronx, I have zero. What does that tell you? That we’re overpaying teachers on the UES [a very nice place to work] and underpaying ones in the South Bronx [a much tougher place to work]. But my hands are tied – the union contract forces me to pay identical salaries.” You can see how this system, in every city, leads to a constant, inexorable migration of talent from schools that serve poor kids to those that serve rich kids.