We Could Pay Teachers More If We Didn’t Pay Them So Foolishly

by Justus Myers

Vox’s Matt Yglesias thinks that we undervalue teachers, and we’d be better off if teachers got paid more. He’s right. Excellent teachers in particular lead to huge benefits for students and society (see here and here, for example). Conversely, bad teachers do the opposite. We would all benefit if great teachers were well compensated.

So what are the barriers to compensating teachers commensurate with their value to society? There are many, but collective-bargaining agreements — which govern compensation schemes for about half of all K–12 teachers in the U.S. — are one of the main reasons our best teachers don’t get paid as much as they should, and why so many poor and mediocre teachers get paid much more than they should.

Take a look, for example, at the recently proposed teacher’s contract in New York City.

You might think that a sensible compensation scheme would pay teachers, for the most part, based on how much they help kids learn. Yes, measuring teacher effectiveness — like measuring manager effectiveness — is notoriously hard. But it is also possible. It is not a large leap from there to suggest that teacher pay should be related in a meaningful way to teacher effectiveness.

What you will not find in the proposed NYC teacher’s contract is anything resembling that idea. Instead, you’ll find on the United Federation of Teacher (UFT)’s website an updated salary schedule for 2009–2018 (explanation here) — one that rigidly determines pay down to the dollar on the basis of highest degree obtained, number of years taught, as well as for any credits earned beyond college.

If there were a close relationship between these factors and student achievement, such a scheme might be warranted. But there’s not. Based on the proposed salary schedule for 2014, an NYC teacher with a master’s degree will get paid about $6,000 (or 12 percent) more than a teacher without one, even though there is scant evidence that having a master’s degree leads to increased student learning. Why not use that money to pay a teacher who’s actually more effective?

Worse yet, even though numerous studies find that teaching experience effects tend to plateau just a few years into teaching (see link above), teacher pay increases deterministically year after year, decade after decade. For example, again based on the proposed salary schedule for 2014, an NYC elementary school teacher with a B.A. and 15 years of experience would get paid about $21,000/year (40 percent) more than a similarly educated teacher with six years of experience — even though we have very little reason to believe that the 15-year teacher is any better at helping kids learn than the six-year teacher. Given that, you might do a double take at the roughly $8,800 (≈12 percent) pay jump between 18 and 20 years of experience. Compensating teachers like this is totally unsupported by the best available research.

What about the newly proposed teacher leadership positions, for which extra pay, of up to $20,000, is available? At a glance, you might get the impression that this initiative is something like merit pay. It isn’t.

First, the positions and associated pay bumps are for one year only. Second, they are only available for tenured teachers. Third, for all three leadership positions the selection criteria are looser than is implied. For example, teachers would be eligible if they had been designated in the prior year as “highly effective,” “effective,” or in some cases only “satisfactory.” Although New York City does not yet have a full year of data on teacher effectiveness, all teachers outside of New York City have been evaluated and fully 91.5 percent of them were rated as “effective” or “highly effective” — not a terribly high bar. Finally, even if the statewide teacher-evaluation system were more discerning, the existing evaluation system relies more heavily on subjective criteria than on measured student learning outcomes.

Perhaps the least sensible aspect of teacher compensation is the defined-benefit pension. The central problem with this scheme is fittingly described by the UFT’s own website: “And remember, there’s no limit on the total amount you collect. Once you retire, those monthly pension checks will keep coming for the rest of your life.” New York has so far avoided the massive pension shortfalls of other states, but in large part because they have made a variety of changes to pension rules for new teachers — drastically reducing future benefits — in order to preserve benefits for veteran teachers (see p. 41, for example, here). A better way would be to simply shift to a defined-contribution pension plan, which would allow higher levels of compensation for existing teachers (who would thus not have to shoulder the burden of retirees).

Does the recently proposed NYC teacher contract make any changes along these lines? No. In fact, no changes to pensions were proposed at all.

We could (and should) pay excellent teachers a lot on the basis of how much they contribute to student learning. But that will be very hard to do while unions — a major part of the education iron triangle — are the main driver of teacher-compensation schemes in New York City and elsewhere.

The Agenda

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