The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Salary Question Needs Teacher Input" by The Detroit News, 3/20/97.

Original Title:
Teachers' Salaries: What Makes Sense?
by Barry McGhan

Last fall's study of Detroit-area teacher salaries (The Detroit News 10/27/96) raised predictable questions (Are teachers overpaid?), and brought predictable teacher responses (No we're not). This dialogue needs to move into new territory.

First, some personal history. I grew up in the Forties and Fifties in Flint, Michigan. Dad was a teacher. We were the poorest family in the neighborhood. Most of my friends' fathers worked the line at GM. They had money for new clothes and trips to cottages up north. They didn't buy day-old bread and drink powdered milk.

To make ends meet, Dad moonlighted, and scrounged up some other crummy position for the summer. As the slow learner in the family, I took up the same kind of life in the early sixties. But I got lucky. In 1967, collective bargaining came to education, and teachers moved up a notch or two on the economic ladder.

Some education critics want teachers to return to that genteel poverty of an earlier time--as an easy way to save money. Others, although somewhat uninformed, seem genuinely interested in using salaries as a tool to improve student achievement. Teachers need to connect with these latter critics and work toward modernizing teacher pay in ways that are good for children, teachers, and the community.

First, we should forego weak comparisons with other work. For example, is there a simple way to improve educational productivity--like the auto industry produces more cars with fewer people? The auto industry can be productive because it has substantial control over its suppliers. Aren't parents the suppliers for schools? Teachers have little control there.

What about complaints that most teachers are at the top of the salary schedule? This is mostly the result of demographics. School populations have not grown much in the last 25 years, so few new hires have been needed. It's also the result of an antiquated pay system, designed to encourage teachers to upgrade their training to at least a bachelor's degree; provide job security to attract more men; and eliminate favoritism by administrators.

A goal for a modern pay system might be to put more money into the lower levels of the pay scale. This would make teaching more competitive with other professions that require four years of college--an especially important goal right now since we'll soon need a major influx of new teachers to cover retirements and a recently growing school population. Another change could be to a flatter pay scale with bigger jumps between steps. Such a pay system could support an apprentice/journeyman/master teacher system where movement to higher levels is based on performance rather than years of service and advanced degrees.

Do teachers get too many vacations? Dad (like many of today's younger teachers) would have loved to work at the same job year round. Some costs for year-round schooling: retrofitting schools with air conditioning; paying staff to work during the summer; fitting family vacations around a three-semester school year.

Should teachers work an eight-hour day? Fine, but only if student contact time is held to about 60% of those 8 hours, as in other industrialized nations. That would allow time to prepare to teach, study new methods and materials, tutor students, meet with parents and other teachers, etc.--the things teachers do now on their own time. Do you expect kids to be in school for those same eight hours? If so, be prepared to hire a passel of teacher aides to cover non-classroom activities--unless you have a magic potion that enables kids to study eight hours a day, 240 days a year. Otherwise, we'll be paying for a lot of expensive babysitting by teachers.

Should individual teacher and administrator performance be assessed primarily by student test scores? State tests can't be used because not all grades are tested. Every-grade testing is possible, but districts would have to buy tests from some testing company--expensive, and another bite out of instruction time. How well adapted will those tests be to a local district or school curriculum? Who is responsible for poor-performing students that enter school or class under-prepared?

Research shows that effective school improvements come when teachers work together in groups. So, the connection of test results with teacher performance should support teachers working in groups, rather than independently. Also, the personal relationships between teachers and children (including adolescents) are very important to the learning process. Connecting pay too closely with student performance could have a negative impact on those relationships.

It's easy to believe that someone else is being paid too much, but such claims usually generate more heat than light. I think we should forget about schemes to connect pay to individual performance and give teachers and parents some real control over school rules and budgets. The News' articles provided clues to such reforms--mentioning schools in Cleveland and Southgate--but didn't show if education improved. For that answer we need a system that provides public information about a variety of achievements--not just a few test scores.

We can find answers to education's problems--but, as my Kindergarten teacher Miss Knapp taught me, we need to put on our thinking caps and listening ears in order to make progress.


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