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Hey Dad, Here's Why We Should Pay Teachers More

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By Jonathan Alfuth

Here's a conversation I had with my father over winter break:

Me: Dad, do you think we should pay teachers more?
Dad: Well son, why do you think you should be paid more?

In that moment, I realized that before pushing specific reforms, we need to convince those closest to us not about the how of compensation reform, but the why. So Dad, quite simply, I think that if you want your nieces, nephews and grandkids taught by excellent professionals, you need to start paying teachers more. Here's why:

In the next several years, over one million American teachers are projected to leave their classrooms. The estimated cost of this attrition ranges from five billion dollars to over seven billion per year, much of which goes to training new and inexperienced teachers.

Instead, we should use these billions to keep and improve the teachers we have. The latest Primary Sources survey found that almost three in every four teachers believe that higher salaries are very important for retaining teachers. Because teachers tend to take several years in the classroom to get into their groove as educators, experience is one predictor of student achievement. The more experience we keep, the more quality we will have in our classrooms.

Second, reforming our compensation structure is not only crucial to retaining teachers in general, but also to retaining our top teaching talent. TNTP estimates that over 10,000 of our highest performing teachers leave the classroom every year, in part because of subpar compensation. Just like many professions pay more to keep their most talented professionals, we also need to pay educators more if we want to retain our best and brightest.

Third, the way we pay teachers sends a message to high-achieving young adults about the viability of teaching as a life-long profession. Students in high school and college need to perceive teaching as an ambitious career, just like medicine or law. Money isn't the only or even the primary motivator for many teachers-to-be. But that doesn't mean that raising teacher compensation wouldn't elevate the status of the profession. Only one half of pre-med students identify financial incentives as their primary motivation for becoming doctors, but high salaries are certainly a component of what makes the medical profession highly respected. If we want our country's best and brightest college graduates to see teaching as a desirable career, it's essential to offer pay incentives high enough to attract the talent we seek--high-performers who might otherwise be drawn to higher paying and better respected professions.

Unfortunately, American teachers make between 67 and 72 percent of what we might expect someone holding a bachelors degree to make. Considering the rising costs of college, stagnant teaching wages will likely dissuade, rather than encourage, college grads from entering the teaching profession.

So, Dad, we need to pay teachers more because the future of your grandkids depends on it. When we continue to offer salaries that discourage rather than encourage our best and brightest from entering and remaining in the profession, the very future of our society is put in jeopardy.

Check back tomorrow to read Jon's perspective on some of the possibilities (and pitfalls) of performance pay.

Jonathan Alfuth teaches high school mathematics in Memphis City Schools and is a member of the Teach Plus Network.

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