Despite the continuing decline of America's primary and secondary education system, teachers' pay keeps going up and up... the average public school teacher made $36.06 per hour in 2005.

Who, on average, is better paid--public school teachers or architects? How about teachers or economists? You might be surprised to learn that public school teachers are better paid than these and many other professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public school teachers earned $34.06 per hour in 2005, 36% more than the hourly wage of the average white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.

In the popular imagination, however, public school teachers are underpaid. "Salaries are too low. We all know that," noted First Lady Laura Bush, expressing the consensus view. "We need to figure out a way to pay teachers more." Indeed, our efforts to hire more teachers and raise their salaries account for the bulk of public school spending increases over the last four decades. During that time per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled; overall we now annually spend more than $500 billion on public education.

And what do we get for all that money? Less and less every year.

It would also be beneficial if the debate touched on the correlation between teacher pay and actual results. To wit, higher teacher pay seems to have no effect on raising student achievement. Metropolitan areas with higher teacher pay do not graduate a higher percentage of their students than areas with lower teacher pay.

In fact, the urban areas with the highest teacher pay are famous for their abysmal outcomes. Metro Detroit leads the nation, paying its public school teachers, on average, $47.28 per hour. That's 61% more than the average white-collar worker in the Detroit area and 36% more than the average professional worker. In metro New York, public school teachers make $45.79 per hour, 20% more than the average professional worker in that area. And in Los Angeles teachers earn $44.03 per hour, 23% higher than other professionals in the area.

As the piece notes, the problem isn't that teachers are paid too little, it's that their pay is based on seniority rather than merit. Even a tiny amount of money tied to actual student improvement can go a long way.

Karen Carter, the school's principal, felt that her teachers' efforts were producing progress at Meadowcliff, especially with a new reading program she'd instituted. But she needed a more precise test to measure individual student progress; she also wanted a way to reward her teachers for their effort. She went to the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. The Foundation had no money for her, and the Little Rock system's budget was a nonstarter. So the foundation produced a private, anonymous donor, which made union approval unnecessary.

Together this small group worked out the program's details. The Stanford test results would be the basis for the bonuses. For each student in a teacher's charge whose Stanford score rose up to 4% over the year, the teacher got $100; 5% to 9%--$200; 10% to 14%--$300; and more than 15%--$400. This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it's called getting paid for "putting numbers on the board."

Still, it required a leap of faith. "I will tell you the truth," said Karen Carter. "We thought one student would improve more than 15%." The tests and financial incentives, however, turned out to be a powerful combination. The August test gave the teachers a detailed analysis of individual student strengths and weaknesses. From this, they tailored instruction for each student. It paid off on every level.

Twelve teachers received performance bonuses ranging from $1,800 to $8,600. The rest of the school's staff also shared in the bonus pool. That included the cafeteria ladies, who started eating with the students rather than in a nearby lounge, and the custodian, whom the students saw taking books out of Carter's Corner, the "library" outside the principal's office. Total cost: $134,800. The tests cost about $10,000.

Far cheaper -- and far more effective -- than straight pay increases based on teacher seniority. And, of course, the teachers' unions hate the idea. Teachers' unions push the dogma of class size reduction because smaller classes leads to more classes which leads to more teachers which leads to more power for the unions -- despite the fact that evidence shows small class sizes do little to improve education.

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