Few people will disagree that the best school teachers are often paid less than they deserve. But even fewer people agree when it comes to figuring out what to do about the situation–except for the labor unions.
Recently, the union-backed Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, D.C. released a report titled How Does Teacher Pay Compare? Methodological Challenges and Answers. The basic findings of the report were that teachers earn significantly less than comparable professionals such as accountants, architects, and computer programmers.
The familiar solution from such special interest groups is to simply raise the salaries for all teachers to the same level as “similar” workers. Sandra Feldman, an EPI board member and former American Federation of Teachers union president, has argued that “Low salaries prevent quality people from both entering and staying in the profession,” and that new college graduates, as well as veteran teachers, are being lured to other professions with lucrative salary offers while the teaching profession languishes.
Feldman is absolutely right. But the answer to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is not as simple as artificially increasing salaries.
In fact, there is a much better way for public school teachers to make the kind of money they are worth while also making the teaching profession attractive enough for top young college graduates to gravitate toward it again. However, it will require a re-orientation of the profession.
Teaching–unlike the comparable occupations identified by EPI–is heavily unionized and remains one of the few professions in which salaries have little or nothing to do with competency, demand, or performance. Public school teachers are paid according to a union-negotiated, one-size-fits-all, seniority-based salary schedule. This means that high-performing teachers are paid the same as mediocre or even incompetent teachers.
Pay will become more equitable for educators only when the teaching profession becomes competitive like other careers. Such a competitive environment would give enterprising educators the opportunity to teach in a workplace environment beyond the traditional, union-dominated school setting.
Accountants, architects, and computer programmers can practice their profession in a variety of ways. They can be employed by organizations, they can partner with others, or they can work for themselves in private practice. Today, the majority of school teachers lack such essential professional choices.
Traditionally, teachers must enter their profession as employees of schools or school districts. Confronted with myriad restrictions and bloated bureaucracies, many qualified teachers leave the profession in order to pursue more autonomous or financially rewarding careers. Other potential teachers never even consider entering the profession due to the lack of opportunities for professional development and advancement.
Therefore, improving the teaching profession will require greater flexibility in allowing educators to work for themselves or the freedom to collaborate with others. Teachers must be given the freedom to negotiate their own salaries and establish their own value in the education marketplace.
Unfortunately, these are not the kinds of solutions either EPI or Feldman have in mind. But what if teachers were allowed more professional choices? What would this new education economy look like?
First of all, freeing teachers from seniority-based pay scales would force schools to directly compete with each other to attract and retain good teachers. Administrators would need to provide appropriate financial rewards to teachers who excel or risk losing them to a competing school. Mediocre or incompetent teachers would be forced to improve their skills or choose another line of work. These changes would bring the teaching profession into line with other professional occupations.
Educators with excellent skills also would recognize that, due to their market value outside the traditional school setting, they may be better off going into private practice on their own or partnering with like-minded educators, and contracting their services to the highest bidder.
Public school districts have long benefited from contracting out for services like transportation, food services, and building maintenance. Why not contract for instructional services in a similar way? Such opportunities for teachers could create a new breed of “educator-entrepreneur” with children being the ultimate beneficiaries.
If our best teachers are to earn salaries that more justly reflect their talents and abilities, then the same incentives that drive continuous improvement and innovation among accountants, architects, and computer programmers must be brought to bear on the teaching profession.
There is no question that increasing teachers’ salaries is important to attracting and retaining more high-quality educators in our schools. But greater freedom and professional choice for teachers–not expensive school tax hikes on citizens–is the best way to accomplish that goal.
# # #
Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president and CEO of The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.