The conventional wisdom is we significantly underpay our teachers in the US. Unfortunately, this makes teaching one of the least sexy professions in our society even though it is one of the more important. One study out of Harvard University estimated that one talented kindergarten teacher could be worth as much as $320,000 when you factor in the actual value that such a teacher is producing for our society. That makes sense when you think about twenty-five students walking out of her class having learned the basics and ready for first grade each year. But spread out that example across the country's 15,000 school districts and you have a labor market that is stretched quite thin in many ways.
Myths and variations all around
In the meantime, there are some pervasive myths out there about teacher compensation that seem to go away upon closer inspection. Teachers are making an average national salary of $30,377 according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Other college graduates who enter fields that require similar training and responsibilities start somewhat higher such as software developers ($43,635), public accountants ($44,668), and registered nurses ($45,570). In addition to this low average starting salary, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that teachers' wages have fallen behind those of other similar workers since 1979 when looking at weekly and yearly earnings.
The key working condition
Measuring and paying for good teaching
Meanwhile, this particular workforce model also creates a layer of management that encourages the best teachers to move out of the classroom and into administrative roles with considerably higher salaries and benefits, yet another interesting aspect of our education system. Though we have seen some changes in educator compensation through efforts such as "merit pay," results for students and teachers themselves have been very limited regarding their overall impact. Research from RAND in New York City showed that merit pay did not increase student achievement at any grade level and that teachers did not change their teaching behaviors even with the offer of such pay incentives.
- Denver Public Schools - the local teacher's union in Denver and the school district there have implemented a new compensation program called ProComp. This system replaces the single salary schedules with a system of incentives for teachers reaching specific milestones. The new compensation program in Denver includes school- and classroom-wide student growth goals, incentives for teachers taking more challenging assignments, professional development goals, and incentives tied to positive evaluations from principals.
- Harrison School District Two - this Colorado district has launched a performance pay program that measures educators based on student achievement data (from standardized test scores) and teacher observations. The approach allows teachers to progress from one level to the next based on meeting performance criteria in both student achievement and teacher observations.
- District of Columbia Public Schools - Our nation's capital has implemented a system called IMPACTplus which is meant to deliver yearly bonuses to teachers deemed highly effective through a mix of test scores, value-added data and evaluations from principals and master teachers.
Antiquated labor model
The U.S. Department of Education has pushed districts to rethink the total compensation package that teachers receive. The feds have asked districts to consider compensation in the form of prepaid insurance premiums, rather than employee welfare entitlements; and encouraged districts to offer pensions as deferred compensation in the form of managed savings plans which have large monetary value especially late in a teacher's career. The Department of Education says that these are "powerful incentives that should be used to reward and motivate the most effective teachers in a manner that does not promote one-size fits all approach."
The issue of tenure
Alternative approaches to teacher compensation
Just a few years before, in 2004, the teacher's union in Helena, MT adopted the Professional Compensation Alternative Plan (PCAC). This plan is based on the teachers' progression along a self-designed career development plan, professional service activities agreed upon with school administrators, and receipt of a positive evaluation (includes professional growth goals and "check-out" professional learning tasks previously agreed upon) written by an administrator.
The future of teacher pay
In conclusion, the broader conversation about teacher pay focuses on the central question, "How do we value (through compensation) a role that is centrally important in our society?" Given the nature of teaching, it is a difficult thing to measure in dollars, but also important that we do just this so that teachers can enjoy a strong standard of living while teaching students. With that said, we should expect the competition and wide variation that we see in teacher pay to continue for a while given the various structures set up to determine how we pay our teachers for their work with our young people.