Dr. Slammy in 2008: Teacher compensation – you get what you pay for

Hi. I’m Sam Smith, and I’m running for president.

Contrary to what some “reformers” seem to believe, the laws of economics apply to teaching. An extremely talented teaching candidate who’s bright enough to earn $80,000 in another field isn’t likely to settle for $25,000 to teach, especially when current policies have turned the job into a thankless slog. There are plenty of incredibly talented people out there who fit this description, but when push comes to shove they’re simply not willing to sacrifice their ability to earn a decent living. So they take the better job for twice the pay, and the teaching job goes to the person who doesn’t have the skills and ability to land that higher paying job.

It happens every day. And it’s time it stopped happening. It’s time we stopped paying lip service, and little else, to the idea that teaching is important and noble. It’s time we started applying the basic principles of economics to the incomparably critical task of preparing for the future.

So when we look at our schools and conclude that we’re not getting the kind of performance we’d like, maybe we should ask what would happen if legions of smart, committed people who want to teach, who think that teaching is the noblest of all professions, who have the capability to change young lives on a daily basis, what if these people don’t have to choose between their passion for cultivating the minds of the next generation and their basic need to earn a living wage. What if they don’t have to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms? What if the workload makes it possible to have something like a normal family life at the end of the day?

This isn’t intended as a blanket indictment of the abilities of all teachers. Make no mistake – we are currently blessed with many who have the talent to do anything they want, and who nonetheless choose to make the sacrifices required to follow their passion for education. I’m fortunate to know a few of these people, in fact. But the sad truth is that there aren’t enough of them. The pool of talent from which our nation’s schools draw their teachers could and should be stronger – far stronger – and no outstanding teacher I have ever met has told me otherwise. One of the quickest and surest ways to accomplish this critical goal is to improve pay levels across the board.

If elected, I will make teacher compensation one of the first tasks I tackle after taking the oath of office. It won’t be a simple process, and we won’t begin to see the full results for a few years – perhaps not even until after I have left office. We have paid lip service for decades to the nobility of teaching, to how teachers are the real heroes in our society, to the value they represent in our communities and in the lives of tomorrow’s leaders. If I’m elected, our children will spend their days working with the brightest and best teachers our nation has ever seen, and we’ll begin to enjoy the rewards of putting our money where our mouth is.

Some will ask how we’ll pay for this. The EdF1rst initiative will require a significant increase in our total spending on education in the short term. We will not, however, lock ourselves into a “find more money” funding model. Instead, we will adopt a true education first approach. Our teaching and learning initiatives will be funded first – before defense, before social programs, before everything. We will then prioritize the remainder of our spending. This doesn’t imply that other programs aren’t worthy or important, only that we should put first things first. And nothing is more important to Americans than their future.

In the medium and longer term our total spending on salaries might actually decrease. We often make the assumption that we need more teachers, and this is true if we stick with our current teaching models. However, there is exciting evidence suggesting that emerging technology-based teaching models can enable more effective learning with fewer teachers. If these approaches prove broadly feasable, we anticipate that we can recruit the very best teachers, pay them what they’re actually worth, and manage expenditures all at the same time.

Finally, the tendency to think of teaching in cost terms ends the day I’m sworn in. Done properly, education isn’t a cost, it’s an investment that pays itself off dozens, hundreds, even thousands of times over when viewed in the long term. A dollar spent today that generates a million dollars in 20 years simply isn’t a cost, and we’re through viewing our children as a drain on our national resources. They are national resources, and will henceforth be treated that way.

8 replies »

  1. Raising salaries to be competitive is a good first step. The next step would be to find a way to remove the bureaucratic impediments that get in the way of actual teaching. That’s huge factor in why I left my teaching job–too many forms and checkboxes, not enough teaching.

  2. Maybe a better way of putting it is. . . bring all teachers close to the salary levels of those in the high-paying districts.

    Like where I live, in the suburbs of New York City. Teachers do really well here. And, in most cases, deservedly.

    When I was in high school, also in an upper-middle-class suburb, I looked down on the teachers. I thought they were losers who couldn’t get better jobs. And most of them taught (if you call that teaching) that way. Education was lost on me (barely got out of high school; flunked out of college).

    Imagine my surprise when my son entered the school system of a town near the one in which I grew up and I found most of his teachers dedicated, caring and energetic. My cynicism about education took a major beating.

  3. As I’ve said before, teachers or students, there’s a bigger problem as to what happens when students graduate and cannot find work, which seems to be in any field today.

    The Lies at the End of the American Dream By PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS

    ” . . . . Teitelbaum recommends that American students considering majors in science and engineering first investigate the career prospects of recent graduates. . . .

    Beyond compensation, there’s a broader problem about teaching methods, what’s being taught, and how to make future taxpayers out students.

  4. Russ Wellen – When I was in high school, also in an upper-middle-class suburb, I looked down on the teachers. I thought they were losers who couldn’t get better jobs. And most of them taught (if you call that teaching) that way. Education was lost on me (barely got out of high school; flunked out of college).
    Well, when I was in high school (1977-81), we started losing all the good teachers a couple at a time to the private sector. Times were tough in the 70’s, and you had to take what you could get as far as jobs were concerned.

  5. Raising teacher compensation would be an easier issue for many people if the increase in compensaton were based (somewhat like the corporate world) on individual performance. The argument about equivalent degrees and work hours is interesting, but the fact is that in the broad market, people are paid for the value they add to an organization rather than what degrees they have. I’ve posted a brief summary of what we’ve implemented at The Classical Academy to distinguish pay between good teachers and excellent teachers.

  6. Doug:

    You’re 100% correct – compensation has to reward excellence, not showing up.

    The tricky issue in the short term, though, is that a big part of the success of my plan depends on attracting a better pool of applicants all around. Unfortunately, you can’t implement excellence-only measures at the recruiting level on day 1. So there is necessarily an interim step where you’d drive salaries up across the board. This would reward bad teachers, yes, but it would also attract better and incent the good ones in the system already not to leave – and this part is crucial. We’re seeing an unacceptable level of flight from the profession, and your first task always has to be about keeping what works on board.

    I’d hope that the pay-for-performance structure could begin taking shape within the space of three or four years, depending on how effectively we could leverage the experience of organizations already working on the problem, like yours, and how hard other entities would fight us on it. Suffice it to say, this kind fo system would require a significant re-thinking on the part of organizations like teacher’s unions.