Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teacher, I Mean, Teaching Quality Series, Part III: Teachers Compensation

No doubt about it: teachers' pay should start higher than it currently does. Higher pay would attract more people to the profession who might otherwise go into other fields and it would more fairly compensate those who are currently teaching.

That being said, I don't think that higher or merit pay will lead immediately to better teaching quality. As veteran teacher and Teacher Leaders Network member Renee Moore put it:
I fundamentally disagree with one of the conceptual pillars of most merit pay plans: That teachers can be motivated to achieve better results for our students through pay incentives. The majority of teachers are working as hard as we can and getting little recognition and less support. To suggest that we are withholding our best from our students and would provide that in exchange for a few extra dollars is a slap in the face of every professional educator (not just the "bad" teachers).

In addition, merely raising salaries will not attract more qualified candidates or lower the high attrition rates in public school teaching unless working conditions are also improved. Over-crowded schools, over-sized classes, crumbling facilities, lack of resources, poor leadership, inadequate support staff, too many responsibilities, and not enough time for planning and grading all hinder good teaching, no matter how much teachers are paid. (I will address the influence of those components on quality teaching in future posts.)

Salaries should be raised equally and transparently for ALL teachers and not just for teachers whose students receive higher scores on standardized tests and not because of where the teacher went to school as an undergraduate or what place in their class they graduated. It is not fair to pay someone more because they were privileged enough to be in a position to attend a place like Harvard. Moreover, higher grades or a degree from an elite institution does not make someone a good teacher. It is also unfair to pay someone more because they happen to teach students who do well on standardized tests. Furthermore, higher scores on standardized tests aren't necessarily evidence of quality teaching. Even if you believe otherwise, making the all too common mistake of confusing higher test scores for real student achievement, according to this report as well as this study, merit pay for high scores on standardized tests does not work. In Atlanta, merit pay for high test scores seemed to cause not better teaching but rather more cheating.

That being said, I am not unopposed to merit pay by other means. Rick Hess, for example, has some proposals for merit pay that are worth serious consideration. Once salaries are raised and working conditions are improved across the board, teachers who are ready for increased responsibilities or who want to work more hours, without compromising quality, should be paid more. If a teacher is taking on more students by teaching an additional class, that means he'll be working longer hours planning and giving students feedback. If a teacher leads extra-curricular activities, works on a department-wide curriculum planning project, or becomes a mentor to new teachers, she should be compensated for doing more work. Furthermore, I am not opposed to paying people more who take hard to staff or more difficult teaching jobs. While I reject the notion of market-based education reforms or of running schools like businesses, we can't ignore labor market forces.

Those with masters degrees, PhDs, and additional endorsements, such as National Board Certification, and more experience should be paid more. In general, the longer a person has been doing something, the better and more efficient they get at it, and experience especially matters in teaching. Furthermore, when potential and actual teachers invest time and money to advance their professional development, they should be rewarded for that, just as professionals are in other fields. That being said, there are many ways to skin that cat--education and experience should not be too rigidly defined. Work as teacher's aide? Teach for a year or two in a private school? Tutoring? Substitute teaching? Spent a summer in a program such as this one learning more about your content area? All those should apply in some way as education, training or prior experience.

The norm should not be a teacher working ten to fourteen hour days to do a great or even adequate job for much, much higher pay. The standard should be a forty hour work week with a reasonable amount of responsibilities, good working conditions at a fair middle class rate of pay that increases with more expertise and experience. As teachers get better at what they do and are able to take on more responsibilities or work more hours, then they should be paid more, but standardized test scores should have nothing to do with it.

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