Right now, a great many of the monetary rewards to teaching are back-loaded. You get paid much more if you’re a 25-year veteran teacher than if you are a 5-year veteran. And while starting salaries are generally quite low, the benefits – which matter much more to older people than to younger – are generally very good. These incentives select for a teacher population that is looking for a very long-term gig. And I’m not sure that’s what we actually want the teacher population to look like. The learning curve for a teacher is very steep in the first few years, but after that it flattens out. . . .
The current system’s monetary incentives are designed to generate a pool of “lifers.” We’re actually spending quite a lot of money to generate such lifers, because so much of teacher compensation is back-ended in the form of great benefits and salaries keyed to seniority. A much flatter pay scale, with significantly higher incomes for starting teachers, and with a greater share of benefit costs paid by the teachers themselves, would change those incentives. You’d wind up with fewer long-term veteran teachers – but you’d also attract some people, both young people and second-career folks, who don’t consider teaching now because of very low starting salaries. I suspect you’d wind up with a stronger teaching pool overall at a lower overall cost. . . .
The unions, meanwhile, would be expected to fight any such transition bitterly – and understandably so. But if we’re going to have a fight with the unions, these bigger structural questions are where to do it, not over merit pay.
One side-benefit of this reform: It would open up more opportunities for women who are so inclined to go into teaching between college and having kids.