Teacher Salaries and Shortage Areas

When I was young, my mother was always tired. On many days she would arrive home from work, lie on the sofa, and fall asleep. I didn't understand how anyone could be that tired. Until I also became a teacher.

I thought of my mother this past week when I met a friend for coffee. The first thing I noticed in my friend were her reddish, glassy, exhausted teacher eyes. I remembered how she and I would stay at work well into the night, long after most of our students had gone home. After-hours toiling was generally for completing paperwork, inputting data, planning lessons, grading assignments, calling homes, planning meetings, writing recommendation letters, and putting up student work or academically relevant material on the walls. We also tutored and counseled students after official work hours. During the workday, we did these things too (along with executing lessons, managing behavior, and meeting with administrators, parents, and other teachers). There just never seemed to be enough hours in the workday to complete all of the tasks necessary to be an effective teacher, so responsibilities crept into the evening. Such is the life of many teachers.

Last month I attended a sneak preview of a documentary-in-the-works called The Teacher Salary Project. The film, based on the book Teachers Have It Easy, seeks to show non-teachers just how hard teachers work. I would argue that if you've never been a teacher, you cannot imagine how stressful and time-lacking a teachers life can be (I began to understand my tired mother only after I started teaching). The major premise of the film is that as hard as teachers work, they are not compensated appropriately. The film follows some teachers who have had to take on second jobs to make ends meet. If we are going to improve systems of education, everyone should have some concept of how hard good teachers work. But one question occurred to me: What about the teachers who work so many hours that they couldn't possibly take on a second job?

Beyond the fact that good teachers work long hours, equally important is the fact that different teachers have different workloads. My teacher friends and I talk about this all the time (sometimes jokingly); it is not a secret. People are generally very aware of how hard they work in relation to others, and how they are compensated in relation to others. And there are consequences where teacher salaries do not correlate with workload. In many U.S. cities, there are teacher shortages in the license areas and geographic locations that are the most challenging to work in. This makes perfect sense. Why work as a special education teacher (high need license area) in East New York, Brooklyn (high need geographic location) when you can be a social studies teacher in Forest Hills, Queens? You make the same salary, but work with a student population that is better behaved and better prepared for academic success. You, being a rational human being, take the job in Forest Hills. If we look at where the teacher shortages are (in terms of license and geographic areas), teachers are in fact making these rational choices.

Unfortunately, the teacher shortages are in areas with the neediest students. So the neediest students are, once again, at a disadvantage. And so the cycle of academic underachievement and all of its life-long consequences continues. How have these shortages been addressed? In New York City, as in other cities, programs like the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America have stepped in to get appropriately-licensed teachers to fill high need positions. These programs recruit new teachers by appealing to candidates' desire for social justice, in this case through educational equality. But in the long run, the teacher shortages persist. I am the first to say that teaching a high need license area in a high need school is extremely challenging work, partly because extra time and effort is needed for meeting students' social needs (apart from the demands of meeting their academic needs). But I think as a society we can all agree that it is important work that should be prioritized appropriately.

How can New York City better address teacher shortage areas? In a free market, where there is a sustained demand for a product or service facing a shortage, consumers simply pay more for that product or service. If five people all want one apple, the value of that apple increases. And in the long-term, because of the increased price people are willing to pay for that apple, more apples will enter the market. Apple shortage solved. A labor-focused example: If a restaurateur needs a waiter and gets no applicants at the wage he offers, he quickly learns that he should offer a higher wage if he really wants to fill the vacancy. The same logic should be applied to the teaching profession.

At a Columbia University lecture two weeks ago, I was able to bring my dilemma of teacher shortages hurting the city's neediest students to the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the NYC union representing 87,000 teachers. I asked if the union was going to be more flexible, more pragmatic in its approach to teacher salaries, so that the neediest students in New York City can get and keep quality teachers. Will the union go beyond a one-size-fits-all salary approach for NYC teachers that currently leaves some of the neediest students without qualified teachers? An emphatic "Yes!" was Mr. Mulgrew's response. He told me about the new Master Teacher Program, which financially compensates effective teachers for taking on a lead teacher role in a high need school. The new program not only puts good teachers where they are most needed, but it keeps good teachers teaching (i.e. not moving into administrative positions or other educational realms). The Master Teacher Program is a good start. But it is not enough.

While I am very disappointed that Mayor Bloomberg selected a new schools chancellor with no experience whatsoever in public education, I have to remain optimistic that our NYC kids will not be shortchanged in any way. The current situation will demonstrate a renewed relevance for the UFT, as Mulgrew (who understands the demands of teaching at-risk students) will have to do everything he can to ensure that potential budget cuts do not reach the classroom.

But I ask that when the next contract is negotiated between the NYC Department of Education and the UFT, the issue of teacher shortages and the salaries that sustain them be addressed. Salaries should mirror reality. According to the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salaries of general education teachers are as follow: elementary school $50,510; middle school $50,770; and secondary school $52,200. The median annual salaries of special education teachers are as follow: elementary school $50,950; middle school $51,970; and secondary school $52,900. The differences in salary are reflections of the teacher supply and demand realities of school districts across the nation. For example, Boston Public Schools pays more for each increase in grade level (ninth-grade teachers get paid more than first-grade teachers). The San Francisco Unified School District has retention bonuses during the fifth ($2,500) and ninth ($3,000) years; increases salary by $2,000 for working in a "Hard to Staff School;" and increases salary by $1,000 for working in a "Hard to Fill Subject Area." What is the effect of NYC's insistence that all teachers should be compensated equally? Even during a teacher hiring freeze, the NYC Teaching Fellows (which I support) still had to recruit and train a new cohort of secondary-level special education teachers (as well as science teachers) to work in high need schools. What's worse: to this day, I STILL know of NYC schools that are looking for and cannot find special education teachers.

"Teaching is the hardest work you will ever do," my school's literacy coach always reminded me and my colleagues. She is right. And everyone needs to know this. But everyone also needs to know that teachers do not all have the same workload. The easiest way to test this out is to pay all teachers the same salary and see where the shortage areas arise. Those areas are your toughest teaching assignments.

Differences in salary do NOT mean that one teacher is better than the other. Good teachers are found throughout the system. There are amazing general education first-grade teachers as there are amazing 10th-grade special education teachers. But the supply and demand realities of the teaching profession should be acknowledged and translated into different salaries for different assignments. New York City's neediest students will prove to be the major beneficiaries of a salary policy that is based on reality.