The Compensation Conversation: A Teacher's Two Cents

There's one perspective conspicuously missing from the teacher salary discussion: a teacher's. How do we feel about how we're compensated? In what direction would we like to see this conversation move?
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By Jaime Hudgins

The teacher salary debate hit the blogosphere this fall when the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation released a report arguing that teachers are overpaid. Last week, the conversation popped up again in the New York Times' Room for Debate feature, which included commentaries from the report's authors, Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs, as well as other education scholars. But there's one perspective conspicuously missing from the teacher salary discussion: a teacher's. How do we feel about how we're compensated? In what direction would we like to see this conversation move?

In their original report, Richwine and Biggs argue that when health and retirement benefits, holiday time, and job security are taken into account, teachers are overcompensated compared to our peers in the private sector (to determine comparable peers, Richwine and Biggs used scores on standardized tests such as the SAT). The report caused quite a buzz, and as a teacher myself, I believe I speak for many of my colleagues in appreciating that Richwine and Biggs have drawn attention to the question of teacher compensation. Now that the subject is on the table, we would love to engage in the long overdue discussion of real compensation reform -- reform that can reward excellence in teaching and bring more top talent to America's classrooms.

For far too many individuals, teaching is perceived as one of the cushiest jobs around -- days that end at 3:00, long holiday breaks and a nine-month work year with decent pay and great benefits. Given this misperception, as well as the mediocre performance of a large number of America's public schools, it is understandable that teacher compensation has become the subject of scrutiny. The conversation over at Room for Debate highlights a valid critique of education: that unlike fields like finance, engineering and medicine, education does not tend to attract -- and retain -- the top tier of college graduates. As a teacher, I'm interested in shifting the conversation from whether we're paid too little or too much towards how we can make education more enticing to high performers, both in our early careers and, perhaps more importantly, as we progress.

Like many of my peers at the highly-regarded university from which I graduated, I initially made a decision to enter the private sector. Many of us did not consider teaching at anything below a collegiate level a respectable or profitable career option. Part of this attitude, I believe, stems from the way teacher salaries are determined. Most public school teachers are paid like factory employees -- strictly based on their seniority level and educational attainment -- on a pay scale that doesn't take performance into account.

In Memphis, where I teach, a fresh-faced 22-year-old with a bachelor's degree can become a teacher and earn a very healthy starting salary of $41,310. This sounds great until you look at the graded pay scale and learn that if that teacher stays in the classroom for 18 years, she will earn a maximum salary of $58,065, regardless of the quality of her efforts. Advanced degrees (which research shows have little impact on student achievement) bump these amounts minimally. Why would a high-achieving young adult want to enter a career where hard work and high performance -- those very things that "strivers" value so highly -- are devalued by a rigid compensation system in which their lifetime earning potential is exactly the same as a colleague who does the bare minimum? Why would these young professionals want to be active participants in a field that puts no value on doing your best? The problem with teacher salaries in the United States has less to do with overall compensation than with the more nuanced question of how that compensation is determined.

Richwine and Biggs hint at performance pay in their Room for Debate commentary, and another commentator, Lisa Snell from the Reason Foundation, points out that the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, "calls for differentiating teacher compensation based on teacher effectiveness, the roles that teachers play, the difficulty of teaching assignments, and the length of the school year or school day." Of course, the development of criteria for determining which educators are deemed "effective," and which are best suited for leadership roles, is complicated. There is no single definition of what is, or makes, a great teacher.

Critics have been quick to assert that performance-based pay doesn't work in education -- and that is true, if your only measure of performance is student test scores. Nonetheless, as in any other profession, there are other skills that are largely intangible and unquantifiable, but are undeniably evident to students, colleagues and administrators, and should be a part of any performance-based system. A new report by the Measures of Effective Teaching project urges districts and states to combine several measures of teacher performance, including frequent observations of teachers, student surveys, and measures of student achievement to create a robust picture of a teacher's effectiveness (indeed: the study found that a combination of scores on observations, student feedback and student achievement gains were better predictors of a teacher's success with students than graduate degrees or years of experience -- the traditional means by which teacher pay is increased).

To be effective, any system that seeks to reward educators based on performance must be clear and fair to teachers, use multiple measures to determine teacher effectiveness, and be linked to student outcomes. Such a system should improve student outcomes. It should also lead to that additional perk that "strivers" seek: a sense of pride in what they have accomplished.

Richwine and Biggs have correctly identified that there is a problem in our nation's compensation system for educators; however, the problem is not that teachers are overpaid. Such an argument is insulting to teachers and misguided. Instead, the problem is that our current system does a poor job of rewarding those actions and qualities that make our best teachers great. In doing so, we are missing an opportunity to get even more great talent into America's classrooms -- and to keep it there.

Jaime Siebrase Hudgins is currently in her fifth year of teaching at Raleigh Egypt High School in Memphis, where she teaches US government, AP US government, economics, and world history. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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