DFER for Teachers: Good Teachers Are Worth the Money

By Jocelyn Huber, DFER's Director of Teacher Advocacy 

Several heavyweights in the education advocacy world, including Andrew Rotherham of TIME and Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), have already weighed in on the joint report by AEI and the Heritage Foundation, "Assessing the Compensation of Public School Teachers." Even DFER's own Charlie Barone chimed in with his take on the issue. Now, as the buzz around the study has quieted, it's my turn to jump in to make sure no one missed the importance of the debate.

I had the unfortunate opportunity to attend the "Are Public School Teachers Overpaid?" presentation at AEI and hear the authors speak about their work. And as much as I've tried to be objective and resist the urge to react to what seems to be deliberate baiting, I can't hold back any longer. As a former teacher turned education reformer, the whole experience made me angry. I have rarely witnessed such pervasive, snide disrespect, disregard for, and ignorance about teachers, especially early elementary school teachers, as I saw spouted on that panel. 

You can watch it for yourself here: 

I desperately want to lock the authors, Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine, in a first grade classroom in a low-income district for a month and then see if they still think that teaching is such a skill-less, worthless endeavor. I mean, they'd only have to teach the next generation of voters and citizens to read. Certainly, that isn't terribly important or challenging, right?  

When I read the written report, I was somewhat heartened to see that the authors showed slightly more understanding and respect for the teaching profession on paper than they did in their presentation. But it is difficult to ignore the mistaken assumptions and disregard for teachers at the heart of their investigation. The authors seem to think that teaching is a profession for those who have no better options. This report is based in the assumption that people who teach lack marketable skills that would allow them to be more financially successful in other professions. The panelists seemed to believe that this is especially true for elementary school teachers. Despite the fact that early elementary years are the most crucial for a student's future learning, the panel felt high school teachers were more likely to have valuable skills (though still not terribly worthwhile or worth compensating) - fast forward to around 1 hour 7 minutes of the presentation to see what I mean. 

The pervasive idea that smart people don't teach (and certainly don't teach small children) is at the heart of many of the problems in education today. It hurts teacher recruitment efforts and it cripples policy discussions. Make no mistake, teaching is HARD. Being a successful teacher requires skills, instincts, knowledge and perseverance that I doubt the vast majority of people possess or are willing to acquire. The difficulty of the job and the importance of the outcome are exactly why we need more rigorous teacher training and evaluation and more logical, attractive compensation systems. But we need to start with the understanding and the requirement that teachers are intelligent, skilled professionals who deserve better than a system that seeks to get "competent teachers without overpaying for the privilege," as stated in the study.

The report essentially concludes that, when one adds benefits to the calculation, public school teacher compensation meets or exceeds comparably skilled workers in the private sector. The authors even seem to suggest lowering teacher pay, as compensation is currently "considerably higher than necessary to retain the existing teacher workforce." The authors hypothesize that "teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention." (Really? That must be why there's so little turnover in the profession.) But, even if you concede that some teachers make more than similar workers in the private sector (which in many cases they don't), the real question is, so what? Good teachers should be paid extremely well. For the task at hand, they should be paid far more than most are making now. This isn't to say that there aren't some urgent changes needed in the way we recruit and train teachers in addition to how we compensate them. (See DFER's Ticket to Teach paper here.)

Are there problems with how some colleges of education select and train their students? Oh, heck yeah. But lower pay certainly won't fix that problem. Current teacher compensation systems are far from perfect. Basing salary increases on seniority instead of actual performance does nothing to encourage the best people to enter or remain in the profession. After all, many of those retirement benefit packages that Richwine and Biggs felt added so much unnecessary compensation for teachers only apply to those who stay in the classroom for their entire career. It does little to reward those who spend ten phenomenal years teaching and then decide to move on to another career or those who enter the classroom as a second career and bring invaluable life experience to students. That doesn't mean, however, that I think we should eliminate retirement benefits or lower pay for older teachers. Instead, proven excellent teachers should be able to earn the maximum possible salary far sooner in their career. 

I believe in the need for strong, comprehensive teacher evaluation systems because of the enormity and difficulty of the task we ask of educators. I want to be able to identify the best, hardest working, take-your-breath-away teachers, study how they work, bring novice teachers in to observe and be mentored by them, and pay them the impressive salaries that they are worth.  

I want to be able to identify those teachers who are failing their students so that they can be removed from the classroom and no longer provide fodder for those who seek to disparage and devalue the profession. I want to see schools of education that accept only the very best students and graduate rigorously trained teachers who are prepared to teach every student on day one. And, I want to see teacher compensation systems that generously reward teachers based on the amazing work they are doing instead of how many years they've shown up.  But none of this can happen if we continue with the mistaken belief that teachers aren't worth the money.  

The "DFER for Teachers" series is written by Jocelyn Huber, DFER's Director of Teacher Advocacy. Jocelyn, having been a teacher in rural public schools, knows firsthand the challenges that face students and teachers. She also has experience working with teachers' unions as the Grants Manager for the NEA Foundation. Read more about Jocelyn here.