Cover Story

A bum rap?

Teachers take the blame for public-school failings, but lockstep salary schedules hold good teachers down

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

On average, public-school teachers receive about 50 percent higher pay than teachers in private schools. Looking at that statistic alone, and keeping in mind the poor performance of many public schools, some attack "overpaid" public-school teachers. Three nuances should be kept in mind though.

First, instead of assuming that public-school teachers are overpaid, maybe we should ask whether private-school teachers are underpaid. Second, public-school teachers on average have more formal education and more teaching experience. Third, the overall pay statistic may be less important than the distribution: public schools typically are trapped in a bad system.

In 1997-98, taxpayers spent $326 billion on public education, roughly $1,200 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Almost 82 cents of every dollar wound up in the paycheck or the benefits package of a public-education employee, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Benefits aside, teacher salaries range from an average of $27,341 in South Dakota to $51,738 in Alaska. Fourteen states pay the average teacher more than $40,000 per year and another 14 pay $35,000 or more. But according to the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based research firm, only two ways exist for teachers in 99 percent of public-school systems to get a raise: By earning graduate credits or waiting out the clock. Graduate credits, though, generally reward teachers for gaining expertise in popular teaching theories and methodologies rather than in field-specific subject matter. And longevity in government service is seldom an accurate predictor of quality.

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Such single-salary structures are the product of three decades of union control. But while teacher pay has edged higher-in half of states it eclipses the average pay of all workers by between 30 and 53 percent-student achievement has slid into the basement. California, for example, has the second highest per-teacher spending rate in the nation-but only one in five 4th graders in the state scored at or above a proficient reading level on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Eighth grade reading and writing scores were equally dismal. Once the world's valedictorians, American students now trail much of the developed world in mathematics and the sciences.

Meanwhile, teacher frustration grinds like sand in the gears of public education. "Many teachers feel beleaguered, embattled, that they're doing their very best," said former Florida high school teacher Tracey Bailey, now National Projects Director for the Association of American Educators. "Many spend more time with other people's kids than many parents spend with their own. And then teachers get slammed for low student performance, as though they should be the only people asking Johnny if he did his homework and asking him to prove it."

Mr. Bailey believes increased-but different-teacher compensation could right some of what's wrong academically with America's public schools. After a stellar performance during four years of teaching physics and space science at Satellite High School in Satellite Beach, Fla., the council of Chief State School Officers named him 1993-94 National Teacher of the Year. That same year, Mr. Bailey strongly considered leaving the profession.

"I had the applications for medical school sitting in my desk. I thought, 'I love teaching-it's great,'" Mr. Bailey explained. "But I'm going to raise a big family with five or six kids and I can't do it on this salary." When Mr. Bailey was named Teacher of the Year, his salary was $22,100 a year. The next year, despite being recognized as the best teacher in the country, the only raise he received was a union contract longevity hike of $100 a year-maybe six bucks a month after taxes. "Here I am being selected State Teacher of Year and I'm ready to leave the classroom because of a low salary. But it was a low salary unnaturally restricted by forces outside of my control."

Michael Podgursky said union-controlled, single-salary pay structures often force exceptional early-career teachers to look for more lucrative work, thus robbing future students of educators who, down the line, could offer both enthusiasm and experience. The system also suppresses differentials by teaching field, leading highly qualified math, special-education, and science teachers (like Mr. Bailey) to seek greener pastures.

Fewer than half of all U.S. teachers who teach math have a major or minor in math, and 28 percent of math teachers (and 18 percent of science teachers) lack state certification in their field, according to the National Teacher Recruitment Clearinghouse in Belmont, Mass. "If you had to design a compensation system to produce shortages," Mr. Podgursky said, "you'd do what public schools are doing."

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