Rick Hess on Teacher Compensation

by Reihan Salam

Rick Hess of AEI raises the essential point about teacher compensation — a point that I don’t actually think Biggs or Richwine would dispute — and it’s a point that applies more broadly to step-and-lane pay scales in the public sector

For what it’s worth, I’m firmly convinced that, today, some teachers are underpaid and others are overpaid. When I am asked the long-standing question about whether teachers are underpaid or overpaid, my consistent refrain is, “Yes.” I’m much more interested in the broader issue of how we can rethink the profession, make fuller use of talented teachers, and wisely spend the dollars we do have than in debating what the “right” wage level should be.

Under today’s step-and-lane pay scales, the primary way we determine how much teachers are worth is how long they’ve taught and how many graduate credits they’ve accumulated. Now, there’s nothing innately wrong with step-and-lane compensation. Indeed, when introduced in the early 20th century, it was a sensible response to reflexive, sweeping discrimination under which women were routinely paid half as much as their male counterparts. When a captive market of women had few options except to teach, the benefits of this more equitable system outweighed its defects.

Today, however, the world has changed. Whereas limited professional options meant that more than half of women graduating from college became teachers in mid-20th-century America, the figure today is closer to 15 percent. At the start of the 21st century, new college graduates–both men and women–are much less likely to stick to a job for long stretches, the competition for college-educated talent has intensified, and we are becoming better able to track educational outlays and outcomes. All this adds up to a new environment in which step-and-lane industrial-era pay is ill-suited to attracting and retaining talent. The consequence of treating different employees similarly, despite their varying work ethics and skills, has become a growing burden.

As school systems wrestle with tough fiscal decisions, it’s vital to understand that one-size-fits-all pay is insensitive to questions of productivity. Although the term “productivity” is typically regarded as a four-letter word in K-12 conversations, teacher productivity means nothing more than how much good a given teacher can do. If one teacher is regarded by colleagues as a far more valued mentor than another, or helps students master skills much more rapidly than another, it’s axiomatic that one teacher is more productive than the other. Yet, step-and-lane pay makes no allowance for such differences.

Today, we’re paying the most productive employees too little, paying their less productive colleagues too much, or, most times, a little of each. In a world of scarce talent and limited resources, this is a problem. School systems casually operate on the implicit assumption that most teachers are similarly adept at everything. In a routine day, a 4th grade teacher who is a terrific English language arts instructor might teach reading for just 90 minutes. This is an extravagant waste of talent, especially when one can stroll down the hallway and see a less adept colleague offering 90 minutes of pedestrian reading instruction.

One approach to using talent more wisely might entail overhauling teacher schedules and student assignment so that an exceptional 4th grade English language arts instructor would teach many more students. Colleagues, in turn, would shoulder that teacher’s other instructional responsibilities. An essential component of such rethinking is to adjust compensation to recognize the importance of their various roles.

After all, we pay thoracic surgeons much more than we do pediatric nurses–not because we think they’re better people or because they have lower patient-mortality rates, but because their positions require more sophisticated skills and more intensive training and because surgeons are harder to replace. Salary should be a tool for solving problems by finding smarter ways to attract, nurture, and use talent; it should not be an obstacle to doing so. [Emphasis added]

Please forgive the long excerpt, but Hess provides historical context, an understanding of how rising female educational attainment and labor force participation has changed the broader labor market, and a keen analysis of how supply and demand shape the market for skilled professionals. For more on this subject, check out our discussion of Jacob Vigdor’s work on teacher pay scales. 

P.S. And while we’re at it, read Rick on America’s “Nation X” fetish and his thoughts on the UC system.

The Agenda

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