Paying Teachers More Is The Only Way To Fix Public Education

A few weeks ago, my friend Kevin from Thousandaire and I started going back and forth on Twitter about teacher pay. The conversation sprang from an article I tweeted about how teachers get screwed, pay-wise. For the life of me, I can’t find the original article. But the conversation that Kevin and I engaged in was much more, well, engaging. So after a brief email exchange, he and I decided to do a “dueling posts” feature. I’m going to discuss the issue of teacher pay from my perspective, he will discuss it from his. We’re hoping that you’ll read both posts and weigh in on each :)

You can probably guess what my perspective on the issue of teacher pay is, but just in case you didn’t, I think it is absolutely vital that teachers be paid more. Here’s why:

First, Let’s Clarify: Are Teachers Underpaid?

Yes. Compared to other professionals with similar levels of education, teachers make 14% less per week. Just so we’re clear, because this figure is calculated on weekly pay, the fact that teachers have two months off every year has been accounted for.

Ok, So Why Are Teachers Underpaid?

This is a complicated question. I have both an “economic forces” response and a more social/historical response ready to discuss when I’m asked this question by people in real life. I’ll share both here. Let’s start with the “economic forces.”

In terms of “economic forces,” teacher pay (as well as funding for the construction of schools, the purchase of school supplies, etc.) in the United States is dependent on the collection of taxes. In many areas of the country, funding for public education is derived primarily from property taxes. In some areas state taxes are collected and state governments distribute them among districts according to various formulas, and county taxes are also used to provide additional funding. In either case, teacher pay is tied to taxation. It is a politically difficult to raise taxes, thus it is very difficult to come up with the funds to pay teachers more. It is, of course, a possibility to reallocate state and federal revenue and funnel more into public education. But that’s unlikely. Which leads me to the social/historical answer to why teachers are underpaid.

From a social/historical perspective, it is my opinion that America has always been a deeply anti-intellectual society. In fact, we are downright skeptical of those who are too smart, too educated – a commonly asked question in the U.S. when a young student discusses her major is “well, what are you going to do with that?” Education for education’s sake is considered to be senseless. Ergo, the work that teachers do – you know, educating – just isn’t held up as valuable the way that it is in other parts of the world. Think about it: we don’t celebrate those who are exceptionally intelligent or educated, we celebrate those who are exceptionally talented. In fact, we get extra excited about a person who was able to “make it” without an education. In the zillions of Steve Jobs biopics that aired after his death, every single one pointed out that he dropped out of college, yet was still able to use his inherent gifts to become wealthy and famous. Now this is a hero we can get behind, one who didn’t need an education to become a superstar.

But Will Paying Teachers More Really Help American Students Get Ahead?

Yes. Many studies have shown that the quality of the classroom teacher is the factor that is most influential in determining student outcomes. And teachers who are paid more money are more effective. Therefore, paying teachers more is probably the most important thing we can do help American students perform better. You can read the studies that I’ve linked to, but they basically just confirm what common sense dictates: when you pay teachers more, you get more applicants of higher quality from which to choose. Those higher quality teachers do a better job educating our students.

Hang On: Teachers Knew That They Wouldn’t Make Much Money When They Chose Their Profession, So Why Are They Complaining?

To me, this argument is like say, “well, Rosa Parks and everyone in Montgomery knew she was going to get arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus, so why did they make such a fuss about it?” Just because something is doesn’t mean it’s right and it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change it.

Ok, So Let’s Pay The Good Teachers More. That Way They’ll Be More Motivated To Work Harder. That Shouldn’t Be Too Hard. 

I agree with the notion of paying good teachers more, but disagree that it’s not hard. While I think that all teachers should be paid substantially more, I also think that excellent teachers should be paid generous bonuses (and that education programs should become MUCH more selective and that all teachers should have to enter the profession with a master’s…I digress). But again, you get into a quagmire here. First, we would have to agree on what makes an “excellent” teacher. Test scores? Attendance? Student acceptance into college? Parent reviews? No one agrees on how to measure teacher quality. Second, who are we comparing teachers against? If we begin to make teachers compete against each other for a finite number of bonuses, that discourages collaboration among teachers, and who loses there? The students. Third, there’s that pesky question of where the money for these higher salaries and bonuses will come from. Raising taxes to the degree that would be necessary to fully fund salary hikes would be almost impossible, as would convincing Americans to scale back on say, military spending or any similar Very Important budget priority….unless, of course, we could seriously shift our cultural thinking about the importance of education. Yeah, and maybe next we’ll start investing in public transit.

So What IS The Solution Here?

I honestly don’t know. Again, I think that unless we see some substantial shifts in our collective thinking about the value of education, nothing will change. Teachers will continue to be underpaid, thus attracting weak candidates to the profession. These weak teachers will go on poorly preparing our students for college and the workforce. And eventually American workers won’t be able to compete in a global economy and we will see our standing as a major world power begin to evaporate. Maybe you think this is dramatic. I think it’s the future.

I think I’ve made my feelings about why we need to improve teacher pay pretty clear, but then again I might be biased :) So now it’s time for you to chime in! And don’t forget to read Kevin’s take on the issue before leaving us both your comments. We’re really looking forward to hearing what our readers have to say!

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Paying Teachers More Is The Only Way To Fix Public Education — 32 Comments

  1. Kevin’s link is not working. I’m interested in seeing his argument.

    The biggest problem I have is that 5 years ago people would say, “You are a teacher you knew you wouldn’t make any money, but you chose a profession you love.” Now people say, “Teachers make too much! Down with the union!” It’s crazy how much are unions are vilified right now. I think it’s also easy to say teachers jobs are “easy” because we all “know” (haha!) what a teacher does b/c we were once in school. But, we don’t the first thing about what other people do.

    Anyway, back to the point. I wonder if the 14% less per week takes into account our “total package.” Is that just salary? Does that take into account our retirement or benefits? It has long since been known that teachers, while making less, typically have better retirements/benefits (though I know that is changing.) It would be interesting to see results of our total package vs others total packages.

    Lastly, I fully agree that merit based pay is not a good idea. I’d be competing against my co-workers. Instead of sharing teachers would hide their best teaching practices from each other. I’ve worked in a building like that – it’s not good for the teachers or students. Teachers have to work together for the students – not apart for a bonus.

  2. Oh, TeacHer, you had to go and talk about one of the education policy issues I know most about on a Monday morning. Of course, I come at this from a data perspective and not a perspective of someone who has ever taught as their career. I am very pro-teacher, so let’s get that right out of the way.

    The evidence on teacher pay and teacher quality is really complicated. It is clear that people respond to pay incentives, but it is not as straightforward as it sees on the face of it. We have to be careful about how we design these programs so that we’re not throwing money at the problem, as it were.

    Studies show that teachers are actually pretty averse to inequality in their profession, and so creating incentives for them to compete against their colleagues — as you and the previous commenter pointed out — is not popular among the types of people who go into teaching. It’s not to say it wouldn’t work if we put investment banker-types in the classroom, but for our current teaching force, this does not make sense. (People who aren’t teachers don’t really get this, because a lot of us chose careers where we do directly compete with people that we work on a team with for pay and promotions, so this needs to be highlighted more). The good news is there are still a lot of ways to be creative here — for example, creating incentives for a team of teachers or a school of teachers who are rewarded if a group of students they have shepherded all through high school meet a graduation rate target. You can have incentives without creating a zero-sum competition.

    Another suggestion that I hope does not get construed in this political environment as being anti-union or something: I think paying teachers based on degrees + experience alone is outdated. Of course these should play in, but I want to see more expansion of programs that pay teachers more for taking difficult assignments, such as teaching in lower income schools, teaching special education, or teaching math and science. I am not sure of how prevalent that is now, but I think it needs to be even more so. Maybe that would take a cultural shift where a music teacher has to get used to the science teacher making significantly more money than them, but that is an important way to attract people with skills in demand elsewhere in the labor market.

    I could go on forever, but the last thing I will say is that I agree with you about anti-intellectualism in the U.S. Even the way you talk about the problems here, though, is telling: “And eventually American workers won’t be able to compete in a global economy and we will see our standing as a major world power begin to evaporate.” This is the country’s mindset: that education is about economic productivity, and pitching it that way makes people care. I know that teachers know there is other value to education, but we have to start showing solid evidence of the benefits of education in non-economic (or at least non-directly economic) terms.

    Thanks for the great post!


      I can’t address all of them in this space, but I do want to respond to the education + experience system of doling out raises being outdated piece. I totally, 100% agree. Honestly, the best way to get a better picture of teacher performance is to be observing teachers in the classroom and conferencing with them A LOT more. We need more qualified administrators really seeing what teachers are doing all day, ever day. The conferencing part would come in to provide teachers an opportunity to discuss the things administrators wouldn’t be able to see. For example, providing feedback to their students on essays and projects. That can’t be observed in the classroom, but it’s important that teachers be given an opportunity to prove that they’re engaging in this important activity.

      The problem goes back to money. You would need to hire a lot more administrators to go in and observe and evaluate, and for most administrators their time is tied up in dealing with student behavior issues, not critiquing lessons.

      If we had more people actually SEEING what teachers are doing, it would be easier to evaluate their performance. The tendency to rely on test scores exclusively to judge teachers comes from the lack of time on the part of the administration, and almost no one believes that judging teachers only on test scores is a good idea.

      Yes, this is a complicated issue!

  3. Good post. Society is skeptical of educated people, and teachers are educated people. Show your skepticism by paying less, seems to be the case.

    One critique: I would not compare the difficulties with low teacher pay to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But I understand what you were trying to say. It’s not right, it needs to change and something’s gotta give.

    It’s funny that I comment on your blog, because quite honestly I can’t think of anything I’d rather do LESS than teach. When I told people my major, they were like “Oh, you’re going to teach?” to which I quickly replied, “NO!” lol.

    • Yes I hesitated to use this as an example because I didn’t want it to appear that these two issues are ANYWHERE in the same realm, but I was trying to make it clear that saying “well, we all knew it was this way” isn’t an excuse for accepting the status quo.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

  4. Gotta say, I fundamentally disagree with the title of your post. I think there are lots of ways to improve student performance (which really is what we should all be looking to fix in public education).
    A big reason that I knew I could not remain in the teaching profession was because there was so much less autonomy than I remember my teachers having growing up. They were able to experiment with curricula and push us to have wild and complicated thoughts. (See my post from today for a good example.)
    But that kind of stuff doesn’t fly anymore. Before I told my principal that I wouldn’t be coming back to teach the following year, I added up all the class time that would be missed for various testing series that were unrelated to my courses in the following year. It was a 4 weeks of class time. A month. More than 10% of the school year completely lost due to testing.
    Give the teachers back their autonomy, and incentivize performance and then you might be on the right track. But, no, *just* cutting a bigger paycheck is not the answer.

    • I agree with your point about teachers needing more autonomy and that testing requirements have gotten totally out of control. But I think that if we start paying more, we’ll attract the kind of people who are likely to stand up for what’s important because they take the art of teaching seriously and don’t want BS interfering with it.

      Teachers today feel so beaten down by paperwork and testing and bureaucracy that many feel like, “I don’t get paid enough to make a fuss about this. I’ll just go along with it or leave the profession.” So many issues go back to pay, both directly and indirectly.

  5. I would also say that teachers are underpaid because it was/is historically a female-dominated profession. Women weren’t primary breadwinners, so who cares if their salary is lower? Obviously our society doesn’t work that way anymore, but I think the ratio of women vs. men has a lot to do with teacher pay.

  6. Both sides of this are very interesting, but I agree with you. Until we pay teachers what they are actually worth, the majority of teachers in the profession are not going to be great. It takes someone very, very dedicated to do this job for the pay we currently have. I think we ARE going to find ourselves at the bottom of the totem pole of world influence very soon if we don’t make a change.

  7. Let me start by saying I am a teacher. I was full time for 9+ years and burned out- BAD. I now sub and work in distance education- good for me and my family but lousy pay. Teachers DO ( for the most part) make enough money. If I were on a contract here in Alberta- I would be making $96500 +/year with a good benefit, health and retirement plans. This is “enough”. However- it is and always will be cheaper to give teachers a raise instead of fixing the system. We need to hire more teachers to keep class sizes lower, have more trained EAs to help those who fall through the cracks, more testing and more educational options for those who don’t fit into a regular classroom. What about better career awareness? Mandatory kindergarten achievement goals, year- round schooling to prevent the September review and June review burn-out by both kids and teachers? It is a lot more expensive and daunting to make real changes that matter to the system. Paying teachers more is the quick, cheap fix.

  8. I think that teachers should be paid more money in my state because we have the money to pay them but not in all states. Some states have teachers making 60K right out of college, no wonder they are broke.

    Anyway, it seems like you have a lot more than 8 weeks off. 3 weeks for Christmas, 1/2 week for fall conferences and 1/2 week for Thanksgiving, 1 week off for Spring Break, 12 weeks off for summer. Isn’t that at least 17 weeks without counting the little breaks like Easter, snow days, sick days, etc.? I think that you have a part-time job that requires a full degree. I don’t think you should be paid for the full degree but somewhere in between.

    I think teachers should get paid more but I don’t think it would help across the board with our education system. The unions need to go so teachers can get promoted on their skills and not their tenure. Also, that way bad teachers could actually get fired.

    • Whoa, who gets 3 weeks at Christmas? And what’s a fall conference? And a whole half week for Thanksgiving? And a week for spring break? (That I actually do get where I teach now, but it’s not universal. We didn’t have spring break at the high school I went to).

      You are WAY overstating the time off during the year. Don’t get me wrong, teachers get a lot more time off than the average worker in America, but that figure is very overblown and totally depends on where in the country you teach.

      • I agree with the above comment-er 100%. Some teachers absolutely deserve more, but the system is clogged with crappy teachers who are in it for the schedule. Unions need to go so we can unclog the system! Also in my area, teachers have the following time off throughout each school year…
        October, 1 week for fall break
        November, 1 week for Thanksgiving break
        December, 2 weeks for Christmas/New Years break
        February, 1 week for winter break
        April, 1 week for spring break
        Summer break is 11 weeks. That is also 17 weeks off. It’s nearing a part-time position if you break it down that way. I believe GOOD teachers deserve the money, but the problem is our country doesn’t allow you to get rid of the bad first. The entire educational system is a joke here. Our children aren’t getting the chances they deserve to learn. I feel like we are getting more dumb by the minute!

        • The fact that you would say this makes me scratch my head. Do you really believe that all of that is pure vacation? My mentor teacher graded papers all during her Thanksgiving break (which was only two days off, mind you). Most teachers have to pay for the privilege of maintaining their license, which comes by going to summer conferences, taking grad classes (often during the summer) or straight up working during the summer in the school system.

          The fact that ANYONE believes “oh you have all this time off!” as though teachers just skip out the door at 4 p.m. without a care in the world is troubling to me. I take work home every.single.night. even though I am ruthless with locking myself in the classroom during my prep period so that I don’t get distracted. Although, prep periods are usually when students come in for help, which I do make time for. Add in sponsoring clubs, working concession stands, showing up at games and chess tournaments and chaperoning prom- it adds up, fast. Teachers don’t just work the hours they are on contract. We have to do hours of prep so that we can show up and work, and a lot of that prep takes place after school/on weekends/on vacation.

          This, to me, is part of the problem, right here. A fundamental lack of understanding as to what teaching entails in the day to day.

          • There’s a saying I love, and I can’t remember where I heard it first to give the person proper credit because IT’S SO AWESOME:

            “Just because you’ve had a teacher doesn’t mean you know what it is to BE a teacher.”

  9. I have long been of the opinion that teachers are underpaid and that to ensure that you get the best teachers then the salaries need to be comparable (if not better) than those working for government or private industry.

    Unfortunately it seems to me that by underpaying teachers we are selling our children’s future down the drain. My own school education was quite pitiful, the only reason I am where I am today is because my parents took an active role in ensuring my brothers and I understood the topics being covered at school. Without them I would never been in the position I am today.

    Don’ get me wrong – some of the teachers are great. I find that most of the really good ones are the ones who are passionate about their jobs and are not in it for the money.

    • I’m with you on your point about some peoples’ education being pitiful. I was going to include this in my original post, but it was already so long that I cut it: I think that peoples’ opinions of teacher pay are largely based on their own experiences with their own teachers. People who have had really, really good public school teachers know how incredibly valuable they are. But excellent teachers are impossible to imagine if you’ve never had them. Thus, people who have had bad teachers think it’s ridiculous to pay more for such low quality.

      I get that, but it totally supports my argument that we should be paying more to attract and hold on to that excellence.

  10. I don’t know if you have seen this documentary or not. I saw it last week and it gives a lot of insight into how Americans view teachers versus other countries’ views on their teachers. It also discusses salary quite a bit. I am a teacher, so I think my views on this are pretty obvious. I knew I wouldn’t make a lot of money, but now we are dealing with our board who is refusing to adhere to the salary schedule and continually freezes our pay. I am in my 6th year of teaching and barely make more than a brand new teacher coming in off the street. My experience seems to mean nothing to my district at this point. (This is the trailer.)

  11. First of all i know I will get flamed for my opinion. But i do hope that you all are open to hear those with differing opinions. Where I live, teachers make more than I do and Ihave been working fulltime since 1984. I don’t mind someone making more money as long as there is some type of checks and balances to evaluate teachers. Again, where I am from, the teachers unions does not want teachers to undergo an evaluation system. Why? I get evaluated each and every year and my raise if I get one is dependant on that evaluation. and some folks get fired due to bad evaluations and performance. Why should teachers NOT be exposed to the same procedures? There has to be some way to evaluate a teacher. Yes I do think that student scores, attendance can be used as tools to make these decisions. Just like in every job, we all get compared with coworkers. I think if we are all honest, we know for a fact there are bad teachers just like there are bad employees in other areas. However in other areas it seems to be much easier to handle these employess than those who are in the teaching profession.
    I have family members who are teachers so it is not like I have some kind of vendetta against them but I would like them to be treated like other state employees. Even when state employees don’t get yearly raises due to the state budget, our teachers do. when my husband gets a 1% raise, teachers get 4-6% raises. Around here if you are a teacher, you can get mortgage loans on special rates even though they make more money than my husband. Again, around here they don’t want to have to pay for health insurance even though the use the same state health plan as all the other hundreds of thousands state employees. why should the other state employees pay premiums if the teachers feel they shouldn’t? OH well……….I could go on and on. LIke I said I am speaking from my perspective and what goes on in my area. I’m sure this doesn’t happen everywhere or at least I hope it doesn’t.

    • I know this is an older post and my reply may never be seen, but I must reply to this post.

      A) 5-6% raises?! Just about every district I know people working in have had either pay freezes or pay cuts for the past 5ish years.

      B) TEACHERS ARE EVALUATED. I hate that there’s this false notion that once a teacher is hired, they have that job for life. It is not true. You do realize that the vast majority of teachers do not survive their first 3 years? These are the teachers that the public perceives as “bad.” The good teachers are the ones who stick around. They are evaluated my many means, but it is obviously different for every district. Teachers do NOT automatically receive tenure based on years of experience; they have to be approved for it based on their evaluations. No tenure = you can be laid off.

      C) I know of no teachers that do not pay a portion of their health insurance. I pay a LOT.

      D) Your assumptions and perspectives may be ill-informed. That is a major problem with America’s view on education right now. You are likely (like my family does) basing your views of teachers on your teenage perspective of them. I don’t know about you, but I was an idiot when I was 16 and most of what I thought was straight up wrong.

  12. I obtained a teaching license and then promptly moved overseas where I enjoy enormously better pay, benefits, and respect for my profession. In Colorado I would have made $31,000 a year as a first year teacher. In terms of purchasing power parity, I’m making about twice that much overseas, with a lighter teaching load and more time for prep. I also have a small class size- only 12 students.

    Here’s the real issue with teacher pay in America- Americans act like there is no blueprint for making teachers/education more effective. When in reality, there is. Look at any country where teachers are respected and paid well- almost across the board, students perform well.

    Even if one wants to (incorrectly, IMO) think it’s a “part-time job”, the impact of that part-time job is enormous, and the power of teachers to influence students is obvious. I know many nurses who work part-time but make an incredibly high salary because their skills and the importance of their work is valued every time they interact with a patient. I see teaching in the same light.

  13. Yes, eventually, teachers should have a master’s, but I disagree that it’s necessary for teachers to have a master’s degree to start teaching. I think novice teachers do need a lot of support from a mentor teacher and longer than what’s usually mandated for first year teachers.

    I taught for six year between college and graduate school. The experience of teaching made my graduate program much more meaningful.

    • I see the master’s degree requirement as more of gatekeeping tool than anything else. If you’re not willing to take the step of getting a master’s before entering the profession, you’re probably not cut out for the hard work it entails.

  14. Masters degrees in education are mostly “check the box” programs. Until Masters programs are taught by professors who actually have done some research, they will continue to be undergrad programs that cost more money.
    Teachers would be better served having excellent, paid for, continuing education like most other professions.
    Gate keeping should be done with higher cut scores on exams coming into the profession. Exams should be taken every five years within the discipline of the teacher.

    • Janette,

      While there may be some “check the box” program out there, I can assure you that there are many very rigorous programs. My program was fully based on research. We took a research in education class, we took a literacy class that had me reading more research than I’ve read for any other class I’ve ever taken, we had a “records of practice” class in which we recorded and analyzed our teaching in comparison to methods proven to work best according to research. I could go on, but I hope you get the picture.

      Like everything, you get what you pay for. I paid a lot for my master’s degree – but it was worth it. It was a great program run by leaders in the educational research world at a world-class institution. And employers know this, which is why I had a relatively easy time during my job search. Again, you get what you pay for. The sad thing is many people think that the “check the box” online programs is just what they need to start a career in education, which is certainly not the case.

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