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.
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."
Single-salary pay schedules also discourage teacher effort and performance. A dynamic, hardworking young teacher receives the same-or less-pay than a burned-out vet who's just going through the motions. Georgetown University graduate Kelly Amis knows what that's like. During two years of teaching in a rugged South Central Los Angeles elementary school, Ms. Amis said she saw other teachers who regularly arrived late, snoozed in class, and verbally abused students. The experience sapped her enthusiasm. Eventually, she quit and joined the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C. education policy group.
"There are lots of people who would teach if they had the right incentives," Ms. Amis told the Los Angeles Times last month. "I found teaching to be so frustrating and so disillusioning and really sad for so many of the kids I was dealing with and the families who felt hopeless."
Now, though, a sprinkling of districts and individual public schools are trying new incentives aimed at restoring hope. Schools in Denver and Douglas County, Colo., in 1999 launched "merit pay" programs that link teacher salary to student performance. In May 2000, the mammoth 44,000-student Cincinnati school implemented a similar plan. (Unions already are calling it a failure, but early measures showed immediate academic gains among students in some schools).
In May 2001, Iowa passed the first statewide performance-pay program, a sweeping initiative that offers educators a four-step ladder to top salaries. Included in the Iowa plan: increased starting pay and a two- to three-year mentoring program for new teachers; comprehensive performance reviews for new teachers; evaluations for all teachers at five-year intervals; and finally, a bonus plan-cash paid to employees at schools that show schoolwide improvement.
Iowa teachers' union president Jolene M. Franken immediately slammed the measure, saying it had "no sustained, stable supply of money" to keep it going-but a May 2001 Education Intelligence Agency (EIA) report revealed that Iowa might find ample funding if it downsized its education bureaucracy. As of 1998, fewer than half of state public education employees were teachers, and the state also employed one district-level administrator or official for every 40 classroom teachers. Meanwhile, Utah is able to manage 205 teachers with a single district-level employee; California gets by on one district-level worker for every 124 teachers.
In May, the Florida legislature approved a plan that awards an $850 bonus to every teacher who earns ratings of satisfactory or higher on this year's performance evaluation. The proposal is part of a $152 million plan to recruit and retain teachers as the state faces a shortfall of educators-160,000 of them-over the next decade. The plan allows districts to disburse signing bonuses to new teachers-a proposal by Gov. Jeb Bush-and awards extra pay to educators who agree to work in struggling schools where students are performing poorly on state tests. The first bonuses will hit teacher bank accounts in October.
With the education debate thundering at the top of the national agenda and well-meaning teachers caught in the eye of the storm, even small steps toward reform show the need for an overhaul of staff compensation priorities. "It's time we evaluated public education spending on what we are actually getting," said EIA president Mike Antonucci, "instead of what we hope we will be getting."