Teacher pay fray

By Larry Sand
August 14, 2018

In light of strikes past and future, a brief review of teacher compensation is in order.

A recent headline in the Austin American-Statesman caught my eye. It read, “Texas education chief suggests paying higher-performing teachers more.” Those of you whose first reaction is “Well, duh,” are hardly outliers. But in the land of the free, you see, traditional public schools are part of a bureaucratic and union mentality that forbids such commonsense ideas. We were reminded of this on a daily basis when educators took to the streets en masse to collectively grouse about their low pay.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s comment was inspired by a Dallas program where educators can make more money based on student achievement, or if they work at high-need schools. The local teachers union was having none of this, however. Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, claimed that the Dallas program “and its success is being used as a kind of way to back-door promoting of value-added-evaluation for teachers based on student test scores.”

While the union leader does have minor point that test scores should not be the only method of teacher evaluation, there is no reason that test results can’t be used in conjunction with other assessment methods like classroom observations and parent satisfaction. Seriously, just about anything would be an improvement over how we pay educators now, which is the barbaric step-and-column method whereby teachers, no matter how talented they may be, are paid primarily by their number of years on the job. They can also increase their salaries by taking “professional development” classes, despite conclusive research by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek and others showing that these classes have zero effect on student learning, thereby being nothing more than a way to game the system and hose the taxpayer.

A merit pay-based system attracts better quality educators, which we desperately need. Only 23 percent of U.S. teachers come from the top third of college graduates, and the inability to escape the step-and-column straitjacket is part of the problem. A starting teacher in Los Angeles makes about $50,000 a year, while a rookie lawyer can make three times that.

Pay for performance also helps students. The results of a study released last year showed schools that gave performance bonuses raised student test scores from 2011 and 2015.

Paying good teachers more is becoming popular with the general public. A recent Democrats for Education Reform poll revealed that 76 percent of voters, including 90 percent of black and 80 percent of Latino voters, “strongly agree that we need to do more to identify and reward great teachers who make a difference.”

Among educators themselves, the results are mixed. According to a 2017 Education Next survey, 78 percent are opposed to merit pay. But a recent Educators for Excellence (E4E) poll revealed that 74 percent of teachers think that those who receive “multiple outstanding evaluations” should be rewarded for their work. The E4E poll also found that 56 percent want teachers whose students show significant gains in test scores from one year to the next to be paid more.

One great way for teachers to increase their salaries would be to revamp the pension system, which is very unfair to non-lifers and mobile educators, as well as the aforementioned taxpayers. Very simply, pensions, which are typically administered by the state and soak up huge amounts of edu-bucks, are “backloaded,” meaning they invariably become much more generous as teachers accumulate many years of service. Those who leave the profession before reaching the optimum retirement age or move to another state can sacrifice significant pension wealth. Educators seem to be slowly catching on. The E4E poll results show a virtual split between those who want the traditional system to remain in place, and those who want a 401k “defined contribution” system that won’t require them to teach forever or keep them captive in the state they now reside.

Even though the evidence shows that teachers and students improve in the absence of the step-and-column regimen, the unions are hanging tough. They see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their fossilized, industrial-style work rules like tenure and seniority – perennial union mainstays.

In our post-Janus world, maybe if enough teachers demand to be paid their actual worth, the unions will bend on this issue. Maybe.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.