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NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Puppeteering Isn’t the Problem: Quick Note on Teacher Compensation



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At The Nation, Richard Kim has an article on student debt levels, among other things:

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. The intervening years had been brutal to the city’s school budgets—down about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006 and 2009. So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”

Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a measure of security (indeed, a master’s degree can boost a New York City teacher’s salary by $10,000 or more). But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has awakened the kids of the middle class to a national nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and tuition bills is shattered. Down is the new up.

Many readers have chosen to poke fun at Therrien, including some friends of mine. It’s true that puppetry isn’t the most conventional choice, but I don’t think we should be giving Therrien a hard time. Moreover, I’m glad that Kim chose this example. It takes guts to defend Therrien’s right to make this particular choice instead of cherry-picking a story designed to tug at the heartstrings. Rather, we should examine some of the other implicit assumptions at work in Kim’s article and in the broader discourse surrounding our public schools.

For example, does it make sense that a master’s degree should boost one’s salary by $10,000 or more, regardless of whether or not there is evidence to suggest that it makes one an effective teacher? As we discussed yesterday in the context of Western Governors University, one can imagine that some teachers without master’s degrees are as effective as teachers with master’s degrees — in puppetry or business administration or South Asian languages and civilizations or engineering or whatever else — and so this arbitrary salary schedule tied to education seems profoundly unwise, and likely to encourage overinvestment in education. By overinvestment, I’m referring not just to the cost of tuition but to the opportunity cost. If the goal is to become a more effective teacher, perhaps more years in the trenches are preferable to a master’s program for some students.

On the question of middle-class stability for young teachers, it’s worth considering the nature of the modal salary schedule for a public school teacher, an issue we recently discussed in the context of Jacob Vigdor’s work, e.g.:

Relative to a teacher just beginning in the profession, teachers with one or two years of experience raise test scores by an extra 5 percent of a standard deviation. They are paid, on average, 2 percent more than starting teachers. If the standard were to pay teachers an extra 1 percent of salary when they raise test scores by 2.5 percent of a standard deviation, then highly experienced teachers who post a 25 percent test-score advantage over rookies should be paid a 10 percent premium. Instead, their premium approaches 70 percent. Visually, the darker bars rise quickly at first, moving from left to right, but largely level off once a teacher has six years of experience. The salary schedule marches right along, providing continuously increasing rewards to teachers as they progress from 6 to 27 years of experience, even though their classroom effectiveness has barely improved.

The existing salary schedule rewards teachers too little for the substantial improvements they post in the first few years on the job, and too much for the later years of their career, when they show only incremental advances. An evidence-based salary schedule would alter this arrangement, focusing the rewards on the early rungs of the experience ladder.

An evidence-based salary schedule would offer higher salaries for teachers with one or two years of experience than at present and somewhat lower salaries for teachers who’ve been in the system for over a decade or two. Another way of putting this is that salaries would get higher faster, and then plateau at a somewhat higher level during those years when many experienced teachers consider dropping out of the profession. The relevant distributional consideration here is among teachers. There are ways we could distribute the existing compensation budget (a) more equitably and (b) more efficiently, in terms of the goal of achieving the highest possible educational outcomes for students. 

It is crucial, for example, to shift compensation from deferred compensation in the form of pensions to starting salaries. Michael Petrilli has offered a game-plan:

Today’s teacher compensation system is perfectly designed to repel ambitious individuals. We offer mediocre starting salaries, provide meager raises even after hard-earned skills have been gained on the job and backload the most generous benefits (in terms of pensions) toward the end of 30 years of service. More fundamentally, for decades we’ve prioritized smaller classes over higher teacher pay. If we had kept class sizes constant over the past 50 years, the average teacher today would be making $100,000.

Thankfully, reformers are trying to flip this equation. Here’s the game plan: raise starting pay, accelerate salary bumps to keep up with a young teacher’s rapid improvement in effectiveness, offer ways for teachers to take on additional responsibilities and thus make more money (like mentoring younger peers or taking on more students), and offer portable retirement benefits that allow people to build retirement wealth without signing on for a lifetime of teaching. Finance this all by allowing class sizes to rise modestly, maximizing smart uses of technology, and trimming the number of aides and specialists our schools employ.

While it is tempting to hold Therrien to blame for his poor decision-making, I really do think that the the system deserves much of the blame: it is wrong for the system to arbitrarily reward teachers for master’s degrees rather than for demonstrating effectiveness in the classroom; it is wrong that teachers are paid for the numbers of years they’ve spent in a given school district rather than on the basis of effectiveness; it is also wrong that teacher compensation is tilted towards the end of the life cycle rather than the beginning, when it makes a far bigger difference in terms of building an adult life.

But rather than blame a dysfunctional public sector, a large number of young people are convinced that Wall Street is to blame for their woes. One can make a plausible case that Wall Street really is to blame for some of our larger economic problems. Yet the salary schedule for teachers has been a problem for a very long time, and pouring more money into a system that doesn’t work when times are flush doesn’t really solve these problems. Indeed, it leads us to ignore them, and allow the problems to grow more severe.

Wait a second. How is it a problem if everyone is getting paid? If ineffective teachers are paid as much as effective teachers, we’re not sending the right signals. We’re encouraging large numbers of effective teachers to leave the public schools, particularly the public schools that are the most taxing and stressful. This is particularly true in a strong economic climate, in which talented workers have more options.

Another way of putting this is that if Wall Street were working just fine, the problems surrounding how we allocate talent across different schools under a broken salary schedule that is not evidence-based would actually be worse than they are now in certain respects.

It is easy to anticipate some objections: (1) I am trying to pit young teachers against old teachers; (2) I am deflecting blame from Wall Street to the public school system; (3) I am denying that anyone who gets any master’s degree is entitled to a high level of economic security at taxpayer expense. I will definitely cop to (3). As for (2), I’m arguing that we can reform the financial system and teacher compensation at the same time. And on (1), my interest is not really in pitting one group of teachers against another; instead, it is to ask citizens of our cities and towns to ask hard questions about whether we’re distributing teacher compensation in the smartest way. This process probably will reveal some tensions and clashing interests among teachers, but that’s inevitable in any organization that is seeking to become more effective. 



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