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April 1, 2004

Teacher Quality, Teacher Pay

To improve schools, reward excellence


A rare point of agreement in the debates about how to improve American schooling is that we need better teachers. Simply put, today’s teaching force is not equal to the challenge of the new century. The way in which we compensate and manage this force, the legacy of a time when talented women lacked other options and would teach in one school for decades, serves to dissuade talented candidates while rewarding and insulating ineffective teachers. It is time for straight talk on teacher compensation and sensible steps to reform the way teachers are paid and managed.

Even veteran teachers and teacher educators have concluded, as Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles write in Who’s Teaching Your Children? (Yale University Press, 2003), “The number of good classroom teachers, and therefore the quality of teaching itself, is in perilous decline and will continue to worsen.” Academically stronger students tend to shun the teaching profession. Undergraduate education majors typically have lower sat and act scores than other students, and those teachers who have the lowest scores are the most likely to remain in the profession. The lower the quality of the undergraduate institution a person attends, the more likely he or she is to wind up in the teaching profession. From 1982 to 2000, the percentage of teachers who had earned a master’s degree in their subject area fell from 17 percent to 5 percent. Professional licensing exams are so simple and the standards for passage so low that even the left-leaning Education Trust concluded they exclude only the “weakest of the weak” from classrooms. While none of these data points alone is damning, together they paint a troubling picture.

Left and right have heralded the need to resolve the teacher quality challenge and meet the federal mandate, legislated in No Child Left Behind, that every child have a “highly qualified” teacher by 2006. Reformers of all stripes recognize that teacher compensation is a crucial element in hiring the teachers we need and steering them into the schools where they are needed most.

It is in deciding how to tackle the challenge that reformers split. Superintendents, education school professors, teachers unions, and professional associations are united in the conviction that the crucial step is the need to pay teachers more. Today, almost everyone “knows,” in the words of Washington Post national columnist Richard Cohen, that “Teachers make lousy money.” There’s one problem with this analysis: It just isn’t true.

 

Teachers aren’t underpaid

The case that teachers are underpaid is a weak one. Teacher pay is actually quite reasonable when considered in context. The average teacher salary in 2001 was $43,300, compared to the average full-time worker salary of $40,100.1 While a starting salary of $30,000 may seem shockingly low to some, it’s actually higher than what many Ivy League graduates earn when starting in the policy world, advertising, or similar nontechnical jobs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, those 2002 graduates of journalism and mass-communication programs who were able to land positions earned a median salary of $26,000 if they had a bachelor’s degree and $32,000 if they had a master’s.

Economist Richard Vedder has observed that the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey shows that teachers earn “more per hour than architects, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, statisticians, biological and life scientists, atmospheric and space scientists, registered nurses, physical therapists, university-level foreign-language teachers, [and] librarians.” In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average pay per hour for all workers in the “professional specialty” category in 2001 was $27.49, while public secondary school teachers earned $30.48 and elementary teachers $30.52 — or about 10 percent more than the typical professional.

How can this be? Don’t we know that teachers are woefully underpaid? Let’s consider the facts. Most Americans work about 47 weeks a year (with about three weeks of vacation and two weeks of assorted holidays). Teachers, on the other hand, work about 38 weeks a year (teaching for 180 days and working additional professional days). In other words, after accounting for vacation, most Americans work about 25 percent more than the typical teacher. This doesn’t even factor in the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, during 1999-2000 (the most recent year for which data are available) about 5.2 percent of teachers were absent on a given day — a rate much higher than the 1.7 percent absentee rate reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for all forms of managerial and professional employment, as economist Michael Podgursky has recently observed. The availability of substitute teachers makes teaching very different from professions like medicine, sales, law, or journalism where there is often no one to stand in for a worker in the event of an unscheduled absence. That translates into the average teacher missing an additional nine days during each 180-day school year. So, technically, the truth is that the typical teacher works 36, not 38, weeks a year. While some teachers might prefer more money and less time off, this is a lifestyle choice that teachers make when choosing a career. Teaching, for instance, with its summer breaks, regular schedule, and lack of travel, is particularly family-friendly.

Public educators also receive generous benefits, including “defined-benefit” pensions that do not require any contribution from the teacher. A career teacher, without ever having to contribute a nickel, can normally retire at age 55 and receive close to 70 percent of his or her salary for life. There are hundreds of thousands of retired teachers drawing annual pensions of $40,000 or more — many young enough to begin second careers. About half of teachers also pay nothing for single medical coverage, compared to just one-quarter of private-sector professional and technical workers. Public school teachers receive benefit packages worth about 26 percent of their salaries whereas the typical private-sector workers’ package is worth 17 percent of theirs.

Teacher advocates protest that none of these considerations factor in the long hours that teachers put in at home. After all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers claim to work slightly more than 49 hours a week during the school year, including 38 hours in school, three hours with students, and almost nine hours at home. There are a couple of problems with claiming that this represents an extraordinary workload. First, when people are asked how hard they work, they tend to overestimate the actual figure, so that 49-hour figure is really more of an upper limit than an unbiased estimate. Second, the typical workday for nonprofessional workers often stretches from 8:30 to 5:30, or 45 hours a week, and is even longer for many professionals. It is not unusual for journalists, accountants, engineers, technology workers, or other college-educated professionals to routinely work 50 hours or more each week and to take work home at night or engage in professional travel. Of course, these work days often include a lunch break, and a worker who is at the office for nine hours with an hour-long lunch is said to work a 40-hour week, not a 45-hour week.

On the other hand, it is apparent that teachers are counting every minute they are at school in reporting their workweek. Since teachers report working 38 hours a week at school during the school day and most district contracts specify that teachers’ entire school day runs about seven and a half hours — or about 37 to 38 hours a week — it is clear that the reported working day includes lunch breaks and preparation periods. If teachers use much of their lunch break and preparation period to relax, eat lunch, and socialize — which is the norm in my experience as it is in almost any line of work — they are actually teaching, planning, and grading about six and a half hours a day in school, or about 33 hours a week. Accepting at face value teachers’ self-reports about their workload at home and with students after school, the typical teacher is working about 45 hours a week, all told. This is perfectly respectable but hardly unusual.

While, on the whole, teachers are not underpaid, good teachers, those working in tough circumstances, and those with critical skills are often wildly underpaid. The flip side is that mediocre teachers are overpaid, sometimes substantially. In the past few years, the notion of the “$100,000 teacher” has come into vogue. In books like The Two-Percent Solution and The $100,000 Teacher, authors such as Matthew Miller and Brian Crosby have called for paying good teachers $100,000 or more. Miller and Crosby are right. If we are serious about attracting and retaining the energetic and talented practitioners we want, we need to pay our best, hardest-working teachers that kind of money. Overlooked in these discussions, however, is that a number of teachers already earn that kind of money. The most recent systematic data, collected five years ago by the U.S. Department of Education’s 1999-2000 Schools and Staffing Survey, estimated that over 5,500 teachers were earning more than $100,000 a year. Between 1999 and 2004, teacher salaries have steadily increased to the point that one can reasonably estimate that today at least 15,000 to 20,000 teachers earn more than $100,000 a year for their teaching duties. In 2000-01, for instance, the median teacher salary was above $70,000 in more than one-third of New York school districts. This means that half of the teachers in those districts earned at least that much. In Scarsdale, New York, half of all teachers earned more than $91,000 during 2000-01.2

The problem is not the total amount paid to teachers but the fact that basing teacher pay on experience and credentials rather than performance means that pay isn’t necessarily going to those teachers who deserve it. Highly paid teachers earn their salaries not because they are exceptional educators or have tackled tough assignments but because they have accumulated seniority in wealthy school systems where pay is based on longevity. Providing raises in such a system is enormously expensive because so much of the spending is soaked up by the undeserving.

Some experts urge us to pay teachers more but simultaneously argue that money doesn’t really motivate teachers. Scholars like Harvard University professor Susan Moore Johnson point out that private school teachers earn less than public school teachers but are generally happier because staff morale is high at their school, they feel valued, and they enjoy parental support. Of course, this is true. It should not, however, distract us from the need to fix a broken compensation system.3 While money may not be the only way to attract the teachers we need, it is a useful tool and one we can readily wield.

 

When equal isn’t fair

Rafe esquith, 49, is a bearded 20-year veteran who teaches fifth grade at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, a school in the Los Angeles Public School system. He teaches his class of 32 from 6:30 am. until 5:00 pm and skips his nine-week vacation in order to meet with students. Esquith is able to offer the extended school day and school year because families choose to enroll in his class. Esquith teaches his charges algebra, gives a daily grammar test, has students reading adult novels by authors like Steinbeck and Dickens, and has the class perform Shakespeare regularly. In 2002, his students read at the eighty-eighth percentile while the school’s fifth-graders overall scored at the forty-second percentile.4 The suggestion that Esquith ought to earn the same salary as any other 20-year veteran is a farce. He works longer, harder, and more effectively than most of his colleagues. Simple fairness demands that he be paid more, far more, than the typical fifth-grade Los Angeles teacher.

Equal pay and equal treatment are fair only if individuals are equal in their effort and their contribution. If they are not working equally hard or confronting similar challenges, then treating them equally is manifestly unfair — and that’s what we do today. The status quo response is offered by union officials such as Paul J. Phillips, president of the Quincy Education Association in Massachusetts. “Teachers almost never treat salary as a competitive concept,” Phillips recently argued in Education Week, and they are not bothered “when an ineffectual teacher earns the same salary as . . . high-quality teachers.” Our existing compensation system encourages career-squatting by veteran teachers tired of their labors, discourages talented young college graduates from entering the profession, frustrates those educators who pour their weekends and summers into their work, and attracts candidates who are often less motivated than those who got away.

Union officials claim that it is nearly impossible to gauge teacher quality and that, even if the occasional principal can do so, principals in general cannot be trusted to treat teachers fairly. As an editorial in the National Education Association’s nea Today proclaimed, “Basing teacher pay on student performance is no answer — it’s a thinly disguised assault on us. Every day, we educators do the best we can, often under horrific conditions, with the best of intentions. No single determining factor — least of all student achievement — should dictate who among us will be paid more than others.” Howard Nelson, a senior researcher at the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, has declared that allowing principals to evaluate teachers “is one of the most irritating, unfair, inaccurate things that could happen.”

A very different line, however, was adopted by the man who founded the aft, Al Shanker. “I’m worried about how to prevent the pay-for-performance issue from becoming dysfunctional, dog-eat-dog,” Shanker once said. “But I’m sure that we can develop such a system and that it would be pretty good. Its flaws would be very small compared to what we have now or compared to what you would have without such a system.”5 Classroom teachers generally agree. A 2003 Public Agenda survey found that 78 percent of teachers agreed that “in [my] building, it is easy to spot who the truly great teachers are,” and 72 percent agreed that “most teachers in [my] building could pretty much agree on who the truly great teachers are.” Even in the world of higher education, where “hard” evidence on performance is less prevalent than in k-12 schooling, faculty raises are based in large part on how much faculty members are seen to contribute as scholars, teachers, and community members.

Sensible reform requires, of course, that district and school leaders be held accountable for performance so that they will have self-interested reasons to identify and protect good teachers. Meanwhile, the research suggests that principals who do not have to abide by certification requirements are especially likely to hire and reward teachers who attended high-quality colleges, who possess strong math or science training, or who put in more instructional hours.6 For all its imperfections, performance-based accountability gives principals a better gauge of employee performance than is available in professions like architecture, law, accounting, or engineering, where evaluations are rendered on an annual basis.

It would be a mistake, however, to rely simply on assessments of student performance to gauge teacher quality. There’s more to schooling than standardized test results. Tests are imperfect and incomplete measures of learning, and it’s crucial to remember that a teacher can contribute to student learning in a slew of ways that may not show up on a given assessment. A teacher may mentor other teachers or help to improve the effectiveness of colleagues in other ways. She may counsel troubled students, help maintain school discipline, remediate students on material that will not be tested, and so on. We should not reduce the definition of teaching excellence in this way, yet that’s a mistake that some reformers risk in their eager rush to embrace performance-based compensation.

It is unfortunately true that apologists have used the imperfections of test-based accountability to excuse ineffectiveness and deny that teachers ought to be held accountable. However, there’s nothing to be gained — and much to be lost — by going overboard in response. Rather than trying to judge teachers with mechanical precision, we ought to develop sensible instruments for evaluation and permit managers to make reasoned decisions. This is an area where public- and private-sector firms have made enormous progress in the past 15 years and where a wealth of experience is readily available from fields like journalism, consulting, and civil service reform.

Beyond teacher effectiveness, however it is measured, there are several other considerations that districts should acknowledge and compensate: the relative challenges an educator faces, the desirability of the work environment, and the relative scarcity of the teacher’s skills. Educators who take on low-achieving or unpopular schools may find it exceptionally difficult to produce performance gains or to attract students. Compensation and evaluations should reflect such disparities as well as the fact that it’s often harder and simply less enjoyable to teach low achievers in a gritty, crowded school than to instruct more advanced students in a well-lit, spacious, comfortable school. For instance, researchers have estimated that Texas school districts could retain teachers with three to five years’ teaching experience in low-achieving, high-minority schools at the same rate as in suburban schools if pay were boosted by about 26 percent.7 Differential pay need not rely on guesswork but can be based on this kind of deliberate analysis.

Similarly, it is time to end the fiction that schools should pay English, social studies, and physical education teachers the same amount that they pay science or math teachers. After all, there are many more competent candidates for English and social studies jobs than for math or science positions. School administrators report that it was “very difficult” to fill elementary teaching positions less than 6 percent of the time but “very difficult” to fill secondary math or physical science positions more than 30 percent of the time.8

 

Salaries

Today, just 5.5 percent of traditional public school districts report using pay incentives such as cash bonuses, salary increases, or additional salary steps to reward excellent teaching. Only five states offer retention bonuses to keep teachers in high-need schools. Meanwhile, the majority of teachers back differential pay. The 2003 Public Agenda Survey of teachers found that 70 percent supported giving extra pay to teachers in “tough neighborhoods with low performing schools,” 67 percent supported it for “teachers who consistently work harder . . . than other teachers,” and 62 percent supported it for teachers “who consistently receive outstanding evaluations from their principals.” School districts frequently provide piecemeal stipends for coaching or teaching English as a second language, yet they don’t reward those teachers who mentor colleagues, critique lesson plans, or otherwise work to make the school successful.

Few things are more frustrating for high performers than to be treated exactly like their less committed peers. Today, the profession repels too many energetic practitioners by expecting teachers to willingly sacrifice professional growth, advancement, and reward.

The steps that need to be taken are straightforward. Teachers’ compensation should be based on performance rather than simply on experience and credentials. Districts determine salaries using a negotiated “grid” in which pay is strictly a function of the years a teacher has taught in the district and the number of degrees or credits the teacher has accumulated. A school district will pay all teachers who have a bachelor’s degree and five years’ local teaching experience one amount and all who have a master’s degree and 12 years local experience another amount — regardless of the quality of their work.9

Paying for performance and for critical skills does more than deliver rewards to the most deserving. When done sensibly, it sends a vital message about the organization’s priorities and values. Russell Miller, a principal with Mercer Human Resource Consulting, has bluntly observed that for organizations that fail to reward excellence, “The biggest risk is mediocrity. Your stars are going to look elsewhere, and your average and below-average employees will say ‘I’m going to stick around.’” Managers require the leeway to pay employees in accord with the difficulty of their jobs, the scarcity of their skills, and their performance.

Just as traditional companies structure compensation to keep the pay of those doing similar work within a general range, a sensible system would utilize broad “pay bands” of the kind long utilized in the private sector and favored in civil service reform. These proposals are hardly radical. In the past couple years, the federal Department of Homeland Security and the 750,000 civilians working for the Defense Department have been shifted to a pay system that uses five career groups and four pay levels — rather than the bureaucratic 15-grade general schedule long used by most of the federal government. Dozens of studies of test projects involving more than 30,000 Defense Department employees have found that the system improved performance and morale while retaining essential safeguards.

In the case of the Defense Department, the safeguards have included the creation of an independent Merit Systems Protection Board through which employees can seek a review of decisions. Systematic performance data and sophisticated information technology can prove invaluable in equipping managers to make good decisions and in flagging problematic management decisions. For instance, enterprise compensation management software produced by companies such as Kadiri Inc., Workscape Inc., and Advanced Information Management Inc. uses “disparate impact analysis” to determine whether any minority groups are being treated unfairly or whether the compensation for any individual is out of line. These kinds of checks and balances can help protect educators from managerial malfeasance.

Such a system in a district might specify that teachers with seven to 10 years of experience would earn between $40,000 and $80,000, depending on the difficulty of their assignments, the demand for their skills, and their performance. If districts were paying $80,000 to 33-year-old math teachers who were doing an effective job in troubled schools, and recapturing the cost by paying $40,000 to history or English teachers in comfortable schools, we would find it miraculously easier to find and keep the teachers we need.

Districts like Charlotte, Denver, Cincinnati, Dallas, and states like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arizona are gingerly experimenting with “school-based performance awards” and more flexible pay systems that reward individual teachers for excellence on a number of measures. These efforts to modify teacher compensation have typically been tepid, tacking small bonuses onto the existing salary system. For instance, states and districts devise plans to provide a bonus of $1,000 or $2,000 to teachers who are already making $35,000 or $50,000 a year. Bonuses that are one-time awards of 3 percent or 4 percent of annual salary are unlikely to have much impact.10 The president of the Wilson Group consultants, a firm specializing in performance-based reward systems, has derided merit increases of 4 percent as “a joke. . . . The after-tax difference [in pay] is a Starbucks coffee.” Robert Heneman, a professor of business management and human resources at Ohio State University, has observed that the “research shows that you need [a] seven percent or eight percent [compensation increase] just to catch anybody’s attention.”

Proposals to reform teacher pay routinely suffer from several flaws, all readily remediable. First, the dollar amounts usually add up to a small percentage of teacher pay and are not linked to broader professional incentives. Second, these rewards are often structured in ways that limit the ability of individuals to influence their chances of winning. Many of the rewards are granted on a school-wide basis, which, though a nice sentiment, means that even a massive effort on the part of an individual teacher has only a tiny impact on whether she will win the bonus. Such systems encourage everyone to work more or less as they always have while hoping the others will shoulder the burden. Group bonuses are a healthy way to build cohesion when mounted atop systems that already recognize and reward individual effort, but are not by themselves effective at motivating individuals. Third, rewards are frequently given for acquiring certificates, like the one issued by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, rather than one’s classroom performance. Finally, especially when rewards amount to $10,000 or more, they are often one-shot deals that feel like a lucky lottery ticket and which teachers expect to pocket about as frequently. It is far better to provide more moderate incentives that committed employees can realistically expect to claim year after year.

 

Pensions

Public school “defined benefit” retirement plans were designed for industrial-era jobs in which employees did not move or change careers. They reflect a mindset that assumes personnel should be strapped into a district for 20 or more years. These plans provide a formula-driven retirement benefit that disproportionately rewards educators who stay in place for 15 or 20 years at the expense of those who depart sooner. Most states mandate that educators stay in the retirement plan for six to 10 years before they become “vested” and can collect even a portion of their benefits. Matthew Lathrop of the American Legislative Exchange Council has noted, “The guaranteed benefit is only good for those who spend a substantial part of their career with one employer. That’s an enormous drawback in today’s economy, when even public employees are less likely to stick with a single employer.”

This strategy made a certain sense when teaching was a profession for married women without other career choices, but it’s a handicap in today’s world where workers routinely switch jobs every few years. Dramatic rewards are provided for those who hang on for 25 years at the expense of those who don’t stick around that long. As of 1998, for example, 35 percent of major teacher retirement systems required that teachers remain for at least 10 years before collecting any benefits at all. In other states, teachers are typically required to remain in place for five or six years before becoming eligible for any benefits.

With its emphasis on time served, the defined benefit model is hostile to entrepreneurs, discourages risk-taking, and is a better fit for a factory than for a knowledge-based profession. Existing pension policies reduce worker flexibility and leave teachers hesitant to consider positions in other districts, charter schools, or new start-ups. The result fosters excessive caution and helps stifle creative thinking. A commonsense approach would provide benefits in a more flexible fashion and one less conditioned on long service. The most important step to take is shifting schools from traditional pensions to “defined-contribution” arrangements, such as 401(k) or 403(b) plans. Such a step would reduce the number of veteran teachers who feel compelled to put in their time in order to collect a full pension, ease exit from and reentry into the profession, give teachers more geographic flexibility, and make teaching more attractive both for talented twenty-somethings and for mid-career job-changers. Reducing the obligation to fund pensions would permit districts to pay employees higher salaries in the here and now. Alternatively, districts could provide a generous contribution on behalf of each employee, perhaps 5 percent or 10 percent of salary, to an account that is readily portable if the worker takes a new job.

Such a shift in retirement benefits would reflect broader changes in American life. In 1980, according to Labor Department statistics, just 20 percent of employers offered the more flexible defined-contribution plans; by 1998, more than 40 percent did. Meanwhile, the percentage offering defined-benefit plans declined during that same period from 39 percent to 22 percent. In other words, most employers are responding to a new and more mobile world by making it easier for workers to enter or exit their work forces without having to put retirement benefits at risk.

 

Tenure and accountability

Currently, it is virtually impossible to fire poor teachers, especially after they serve two to three probationary years and become tenured. In 2002, the Los Angeles Board of Education encountered fierce resistance when it tried to remove about 400 of the 35,000 teachers in a chronically low-achieving district. In the end, the board was able to remove only three, and two of the three removals were overturned on appeal. New York City’s troubled school system, with over 72,000 teachers, sought to dismiss only three over a two-year period. In a survey, more than 80 percent of superintendents and principals reported that the local union fights to “protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom.”

Nationally, public school districts report dismissing about one teacher a year for low performance. This amounts to a rate of well under 1 percent, compared to a rate of 4.9 percent in charter schools. Public school teachers have been caught sticking a child’s head in a toilet, reading the newspaper while children gambled in the back of the room, and missing weeks or months of school at a stretch and yet kept their jobs.11

The notion of “tenure” originated in higher education, where it was intended primarily to secure scholarly inquiry by protecting scholars who pursued unpopular lines of research. Tenure has always been less obviously applicable to k-12 schools in which teachers are hired to provide instruction rather than to create new knowledge. Aside from that larger issue, however, higher education itself has spent the past 30 years struggling to reduce the percentage of tenured faculty. The percentage of full-time professors with tenure or on the “tenure track” fell by more than 30 percent from 1975 to 1995, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, while the percentage working on short-term contracts increased by 50 percent during that period. From 1970 to 1998, part-time faculty grew from 22 percent to 42 percent of all instructors nationwide. Colleges and universities have taken these steps due to concerns about staffing inflexibility, lost efficiencies, and employee motivation.

Unable to remove inept or lethargic faculty, principals and superintendents learn simply to work around them. In one troubled district after another, poor teachers receive good evaluations from principals eager to pass them along. Teachers themselves recognize how hard it is to purge their ineffective peers, with 36 percent reporting that “between tenure and the documentation requirements, it’s too hard for administrators to remove any but the very worst teachers” and just 14 percent reporting that inability to remove bad teachers is not a problem.

Reluctance to terminate weak educators is embedded in collective bargaining agreements and accepted by many administrators as a normal part of doing business. One high-ranking Texas district official wryly explained what it takes to fire a teacher in that nonunion state: “Firing incompetent teachers for poor performance or for engaging in misconduct is as time consuming and demanding as trying to convict someone of a crime. . . . Are we saying it can’t be done? Of course not. What we are saying is that it requires almost 100 percent of a principal’s time to hope to win a case to fire one bad teacher.”

Even teachers agree that tenure protects teachers who should not be in the schools. Seventy-eight percent of teachers report that there are at least a few teachers in their school who “fail to do a good job and are simply going through the motions,” while 58 percent say that tenure doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers have worked hard or proven their ability. One New Jersey union representative confessed to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I’ve gone in and defended teachers who shouldn’t even be pumping gas.” A Los Angeles union representative said, “If I’m representing them, it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.”

Especially telling is that apologist organizations like the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future can issue extensive reports on improving teacher quality, such as last year’s No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America’s Children, without ever addressing the need to remove ineffective practitioners. Private-sector managers regard purging low performers as a routine part of the job. In fact, widely admired firms such as General Electric make it a point to eliminate the least productive 10 percent of their work force every year. As former General Electric ceo Jack Welch has explained, “This is how great organizations are built. Year after year, differentiation raises the bar higher and higher and increases the overall caliber of the organization.”

Accountability provides new safeguards for flexible firing. Measuring a teacher’s value added helps flag ineffective teachers and protects good teachers from unfair treatment. Districts can use these measures as a way to monitor school management and detect individual principals who may behave irresponsibly. In an era when 78 percent of superintendents evaluate principals on their ability to judge and improve teacher quality, the case that teachers need to be insulated from cavalier management is an increasingly difficult one to make. Across America, employment is normally “at will,” with workers free to quit any time and employers equally free to fire workers. That sensible standard should be the model for schooling.

 

Commonsense reform

In an era marked by the No Child Left Behind “highly qualified teacher” mandate and the more prosaic challenge of finding the teachers we need on a day-to-day basis, simple truths have sometimes been drowned out by calls for more spending or fanciful new academic strategies. The critical first point is that, on average, teachers today are not underpaid. The problem is that good teachers and those tackling the important challenges are underpaid — and we need to find ways to compensate them appropriately. Amidst heated concerns that No Child Left Behind is underfunded and that schools lack the resources they need, the simple truth is that fixing the way we pay and retain teachers is the crucial first step in making schools work.

Moving to a more flexible system of rewarding and managing teachers is part and parcel of the larger national effort to move toward schools guided by accountability and competition. In accountable schools, leaders need the flexibility to monitor and reward personnel in sensible ways and to identify and assist or remove ineffective teachers.

It is in the most troubled systems that commonsense work force reforms will have dramatic effects. In these schools, administrators have tremendous difficulty finding qualified teachers. It is in these districts — with their large numbers of long-term substitutes, burned-out veterans, and unqualified teachers — that new applicants will be welcome, that offering generous compensation for effective teachers or those with critical skills will have the largest impact, and that explicit pressure and individual-level incentives will make a huge difference.

Reforming the teaching force in this way will foster a more flexible, welcoming, rewarding, exciting, and performance-focused profession. A culture of competence will beckon and energize the kinds of adults we want in classrooms: impassioned, hard-working, effective teachers and communicators who know the content they are teaching.


1 See F. Howard Nelson, Rachel Drown, and Jewell C. Gould, Survey & Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 2001 (American Federation of Teachers, 2002).

2 See Michael Podgursky, “Improving Academic Performance in U.S. Public Schools: Why Teacher Licensing Is (Almost) Irrelevant,” in Frederick M. Hess, Andrew J. Rotherham, and Catherine B. Walsh, eds., A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? (Harvard Education Press, 2004).

3 See Carolyn Kelley, Allan Odden, Anthony Milanowski, and Herbert Heneman III, The Motivation Effects of School-Based Performance Awards (Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2000).

4 Jay Mathews, “Pursuing Happiness, Through Hard Work,” Washington Post (October 14, 2003).

5 As quoted in Kati Haycock, “The Elephant in the Living Room.” Paper prepared for Brookings Papers on Education Conference, “The Teachers We Need,” held at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., May 21–22, 2003.

6 See Caroline Hoxby, “Changing the Profession,” Education Matters (Spring 2001).

7 Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rivkin, “The Revolving Door,” Education Next (Winter 2004).

8 Michael Podgursky, The Single Salary Schedule for Teachers in K–12 Public Schools (Center for Reform of School Systems, 2002).

9 See Bryan Hassel, Better Pay for Better Teaching (Progressive Policy Institute, 2002).

10 See Eric Hanushek et al., Making Schools Work: Improving Performance and Controlling Costs (Brookings Institution Press, 1994). For instance, Palm Beach County offered $10,000 to veteran teachers who would transfer to low-performing schools, and fewer than 10 of the 90 targeted teachers moved. To be effective, inducements intended to get teachers to leave familiar, comfortable environments for low-performing schools need to be large, sustained, part of a coherent package, and augmented by reforms designed to replicate the focus and collegial culture of high-performing schools.

11 See Frederick M. Hess, Revolution at the Margins (Brookings Institution Press, 2002).