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The Bottom Line The Teacher Pay Debate (Part 2): Examining Teacher Pay

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a three-part article. Click to read Part One and Part Three.]

Before jumping on the increase-teacher-pay bandwagon, several factors influencing teacher pay need to be understood. These include the seniority-based salary calculation system, the nine-month work year, and the higher demand for expertise in technical subjects.

Seniority Versus Performance-Based Pay

Teachers, like students, are rewarded based on the wrong criterion — years of “seat time” instead of performance. Public school districts employ a salary schedule with a simple formula that includes only the education level obtained and years taught. No consideration is typically given to differentiate bachelor degrees — a teacher who earned an engineering degree from MIT and teaches a hard-to-fill subject matter position is deemed equivalent to a teacher with a non-technical degree from a less rigorous university. This does not reflect the reality outside the education system: “An engineering degree and a literature degree both require about the same number of years of schooling but yield wildly divergent average pay upon graduation,” explains Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin at the American Enterprise Institute.

Teacher evaluation and subsequent compensation should include past performance, formal reviews, and student learning gains in prior years. Also, important to include are other factors typically missing in today’s compensation formula — a teacher’s growth mindset with a hunger for continued professional development and his or her rapport with students and parents — both of which can contribute to a positive learning environment and overall school experience.

Professionals in other fields are not compensated largely based only on tenure and education level, ignoring job performance and associated skills. The result of this fundamentally flawed pay formula in public education is all too common low teacher motivation, disengagement, and mediocrity. Furthermore, the most committed, engaged, and effective teachers are not adequately compensated for their excellent professional performance.

Nine-Month Work Year

Teachers only work nine months a year but receive paychecks spread out over twelve months. In other words, they work roughly 75% of an annual full-time salary position. Before championing a blanket teacher pay raise, this reality needs to be recognized.  

In some states and districts, when the nine-month work year is factored in, the hourly pay rate is much more competitive than many people realize. Hess and Martin explain:

Don’t misunderstand. We’re not suggesting that teachers are living large. But, in most locales, teachers are faring reasonably well. Nationally, the NEA [National Education Association] reports that an individual teacher earns $60,477 a year — which is nearly the same as the median American household ($63,179), and meaning that a married couple composed of two teachers is well into the top quintile of household earnings. The poverty rate for teachers is 1.1 percent. And a Federal Reserve survey found that 81 percent of teachers describe their financial situation as either “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” while just 2.7 percent report “finding it hard to get by.” Meanwhile, teacher health care and retirement benefits are generally far more generous than those of their peers in the private sector. In short, this is the picture of a solidly middle class profession.

Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin, American Enterprise Institute

Benefits are another factor of compensation that warrants acknowledgement. As Hess and Martin mention, “According to the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), which are the official ledger books of the U.S. economy, employees in public education received benefits — inclusive of the future pension benefit they accrue each year — equal to 45% of their annual wages. In the private sector, benefits averaged only 19% of wages.” Perhaps teachers could have the option to exchange a portion of their benefits for a salary increase, if desired. This flexibility could serve teachers well.

The length of the teacher workday is another issue to consider. Some teachers work only about seven hours a day, while others labor before and after school, as well as nights and weekends, putting in 50 plus hours a week. Yet, their compensation is equal to their peers of the same tenure and education level. This defective model needs an overhaul.

One way to improve the pay model is to offer additional salary for teachers who provide instruction to students in need of remediation who continue in classes through school breaks. Teachers could opt to work those breaks. Additionally, in a year-round school schedule, teachers could be given additional compensation. This model has proven effective at Corinth School District in Mississippi. As a District of Innovation, after two years of town hall meetings with the community paved the way for near-full support, Corinth exercised its granted flexibility by implementing a year-round school calendar.

The school year is divided into four nine-week terms, with three-week breaks after each quarter and a six-week break for summer. These school breaks are termed intercession. Students not meeting grade-level learning standards at the conclusion of each nine-weeks continue in school during the intercession. This avenue provides real-time learning remediation instead of allowing students to fall further behind the balance of the school year before attempting remediation through traditional summer school.

Students not needing remediation, which the Corinth School District termed foundations, also have the option of attending school during breaks for enrichment, consisting of various supplemental learning activities. Not only is this creative option enjoyable for students, but it also gives parents a much-needed avenue for student supervision when school is officially out of session. Teachers can opt to work during intersession breaks and are paid for those additional workdays, which can substantially boost teacher pay. Selection is based on need and teacher performance, not tenure.

Differing Expertise & High Demand Positions

Teaching an elementary classroom of roughly 25 students is much different than teaching Advanced Placement (AP) physics or calculus. AP technical courses, which provide undergraduate college coursework, are significantly more rigorous and require instructors to possess mastery of advanced math or science content. Teacher pay should reflect the expertise required to teach these demanding courses.

Additionally, school districts across the nation have teacher shortages in upper-level math and science positions and less difficulty fielding elementary positions. Certification is part of the issue — a teacher may be certified to teach four or more elementary grade levels, allowing for a larger pool of candidates to select from. Combine this with the high demand for math and science majors in other industries, and schools seeking to fill math or science teaching positions may not have many applicants, or any at all, to choose from.

A final factor is sometimes the best teachers leave the classroom and move into administration roles to earn a higher salary. Not only can this exacerbate the shortage of teachers in the high demand areas, but it can also lead to ineffective school leadership since a thriving teacher may not be suited to be an effective administrator as skills and knowledge required differ among roles.

In summary, the current compensation system ignores the plaguing reality of mediocrity in America’s schools. For a stark contrast, one should look to Singapore’s radically different approach to teacher and administrator compensation as well as job promotion — which has led to Singapore students’ outperforming the rest of the world academically. How can the U.S. best address its teacher pay debate while bolstering student learning? This question will be examined in Part Three of this series.

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?