The teaching penalty

We can’t recruit and retain excellent teachers on the cheap, says a new report from the Economic Policy Institute. The authors’ analysis of professional pay scales (to no one’s great surprise) finds that “public school teachers earn considerably less than comparably educated and experienced people, and less than people in occupations with similar educational and skill requirements.”

Specifically, teachers earn an average of 14 percent less (about $150 a week) than such professionals as accountants, reporters, registered nurses, computer programmers, members of the clergy, and personnel officers. The “teacher pay penalty” is found in all 50 states, and some states have a gap as high as 25 percent. Why should non-teachers care?

These findings are disturbing for two reasons. First, researchers agree that good teachers are the single most important factor in kids’ school success. Second, because the baby boomers are beginning to retire while their grandkids are crowding the classrooms, America needs to attract and keep a whole new generation of teachers — 2.8 million over the next eight years.

Be sure to check out the press kit that accompanies the free report. It includes downloads displaying the “teaching penalty”state-by-state, the pay gap for both male and female teachers, and a chart showing that annual wages for woman teachers went from a nearly 15% advantage over other female college graduates in 1960 to a more than 13% deficit in 2000.

What’s ominous for attempts to retain good teachers, says the EPI news release, is the finding that the teaching penalty is severest among our most experienced teachers. “The brunt of the widening pay gap” has fallen on teachers in the 45-54 age group, whose pay deficit has grown by 18 percentage points among women (who comprise the vast majority of teachers) since 1996.

“Teachers are the single most important ingredient in educational success –- and it’s important for schools to compete for and keep the best qualified teachers,” said co-author Lawrence Mishel. “But this widespread and systemic devaluing of teaching sabotages those efforts. If you deliberately set out to design a plan to drive away your most experienced teachers, this would be a good way to do it.”

Another new report that hit the streets this past week comes from Education Sector and the Farkas Duffett Research Group. Waiting to Be Won Over analyzes a survey of 1000 randomly selected teachers which probed their views on unions and school reform. An ES policy analyst says the results suggest teachers are “a little all over the place.”

The number of teachers calling unions “absolutely essential” rose 8 percentage points since 2003, to 54 percent. But the proportion of teachers who agreed that the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse without collective bargaining fell 7 percentage points, to 74 percent.

The study also found a sharp division in views about the notion that superior teachers should receive extra pay for outstanding performance (48% yea, 40% nay). But pretty much everybody agreed that basing rewards on standardized test results alone was a bad idea.

Education Week’s report on the study notes that “About half the teachers surveyed said their unions had protected teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. But about the same percentage also said they preferred that their union continue to protect teachers’ jobs and compensation, rather than put more emphasis on student achievement and teacher quality.” (Presumably, one could have both?)

The report’s authors conclude that the “findings suggest support among teachers for a system that has more flexible work rules, more trust in teachers’ judgment and professionalism, and where decisions about teacher quality are not dependent on rigid rules, weak evaluations, and faulty tenure systems.”

It might be instructive to place these two reports — one on pay, one on quality issues — side by side, and see if any light bulbs begin to incandesce.

[CTQ’s Barnett Berry, TLN blogger Renee Moore and TLN member John Holland are also commenting on this report.]

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