By Robert F. Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Posted Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Are schoolteachers paid too much or too little? The question has led advocates of each viewpoint to conductresearchin an effort to prove their point. Often theresearchcenters on comparisons with other careers – or else compares the value of the pay and benefits of teachers in government schools with the pay and benefits of those who teach in private schools.Still otherresearchhas attempted to link teachers’ compensation to some measure of their “productivity.” The fact that there is so much conflicting and contradictoryresearchpoints to the difficulty of assessing teachers’ economic value using the quantitative measures appropriate for, say, the assembly-line workers in the proverbial widget factory.Therefore, using typical methods to calculate teachers’ pay and conclude that they’re “overpaid” or “underpaid” is too simplistic an approach. Moreover, many dedicated teachers spend countless hours “off the clock” handling duties ranging from grading papers to sponsoring extracurricular activities in addition to their classroom duties. Others merely go through the motions, trying to hang on until retirement. It’s hard to measure intangibles such as dedication.Is there a better way to determine appropriate compensation for teachers? Yes. In a true market-based economy, the question of whether compensation is adequate, too much, or too little would relate to whether the compensation results in an adequate supply of good employees.As for teaching, if the beginning pay is too low to attract the kind of bright people who presumably could choose from among any number of other career options, then the result may be an insufficient supply of good applicants for teaching vacancies. This would mean that the schools are stuck with hiring anyone who’s alive and breathing, regardless of their qualifications. If you have 100 vacancies and only 90 applicants, you have a problem that also complicates any effort to get rid of bad teachers because doing so would create even more vacancies to fill.Conversely, if the salaries are sufficient to attract (and retain) an adequate supply of excellent teachers, that’s a good thing. After all, if you have 100 vacancies and 500 applicants, you have an opportunity to pick and choose the best of the lot. Then again, if the total compensation – salaries plus pensions, health insurance, and other benefits — is significantly higher than the levels sufficient to attract an adequate supply of good teachers, then the schools arguably are needlessly spending taxpayers’ money that might be better used for other public purposes or else retained by the taxpayers.Unfortunately, because of teacher union pressure, teacher-compensation systems are often distorted in ways that defeat the goal of attracting the best and the brightest. That’s because most teacher union locals are dominated by veteran teachers who have played union politics to move up through the ranks.During the collective bargaining process, these union leaders push for rewarding seniority – sticking around for years, regardless of effectiveness — rather than boosting the pay of beginning teachers, the pay grade that might attract prospective teachers who are comparing a teaching career with other career options. In addition, these veteran union officials – especially those nearing retirement – often negotiate lavish pension deals to the detriment of offering more pay to beginning teachers.As a result, after comparing the beginning salaries in the occupations available to them, potential beginning teachers often tend to drift off into other fields because they are dismayed when they discover that they wouldn’t be making any “real money” until they’d been teaching for 20+ years.This – plus the teachers union’s stubborn resistance to linking compensation with classroom effectiveness as measured in student achievement — is just one of the ways in which the teachers unions undermine efforts to improve the quality of instruction.