“Who made history? We made history!” According to Jane McAlevey, writing in The Nation, that was the triumphant chant of West Virginia teachers after state lawmakers passed legislation designed to put an end to a statewide education strike. Teachers’ unions around the country have been emboldened by the strike’s success, and understandably so: The West Virginia settlement goes beyond making concessions on wages and health benefits to include halting the expansion of charter schools and putting an end to efforts to reform work rules, among other things. Chances are we will see similar strikes elsewhere, with Arizona and Oklahoma as two of the likeliest candidates. At a time when public-sector unions are bracing for the outcome of the Janus case, which could put an end to mandatory union fees for public-sector employees who choose to opt out of union membership, this is a shot in the arm for the labor movement’s dominant public-sector wing — a sign that militancy can work.
But what should the rest of us make of it? As someone who is favorably disposed towards charter schools, and who believes that the only way to sustain high levels of public employment is to ensure that the terms of employment aren’t cripplingly expensive, I found the news from West Virginia discouraging. Given the tight labor market, it is inevitable that workers, including public-sector workers, will demand higher pay. That is to be expected. And a 5 percent increase in teacher salaries, as in the West Virginia settlement, doesn’t strike me as unreasonable itself. However, state and local governments need to ensure that higher pay translates into improved performance. And to do that, they shouldn’t just make concessions in the face of intimidation, as in West Virginia. They ought to secure durable reforms as part of the bargain.
Most everyone, from those who believe that teachers should earn more, so that the profession attracts the best and the brightest, to those who believe that union contracts are bankrupting American schools, while also leading to poorer educational outcomes, agrees that there is something wrong with the way our educators are paid. Instead of allowing teachers unions to seize the initiative, state lawmakers need an affirmative agenda for how to fix teacher pay. The answer is not to hike it across the board, regardless of the impact on learning, but to ensure that any additional spending redounds to the benefit of students.
According to Jacob Vigdor of the Manhattan Institute and the University of Washington, the problem is the way raises are structured over a teacher’s lifetime. Across the country, salaries generally start low — much lower than for other professionals — although there are boosts for advanced degrees and other credentials. Over time, as a teacher racks up years of experience, his or her salary also rises, peaking when that teacher reaches his or her mid 50s and is close to retirement.
Such a pay structure might make sense if credentials helped ensure better teaching and if every additional year on the job came with some sort of improvement in effectiveness. In fact, Vigdor explains, “the available evidence suggests that the connection between credentials and teaching effectiveness is very weak at best, and the connection between additional years of experience and teaching effectiveness, while substantial in the first few years in the classroom, attenuates over time.” (In a North Carolina study, increases in student test scores were found to largely level off after a teacher had reached six years of experience.)
And so we have built a system in which educators early in their careers are both underpaid and insufficiently rewarded for improvements in performance while those later in their careers are paid for progress in the classroom that they are not making. This stands in contrast, Vigdor argues, to the pay structure for doctors, for example, who also make rapid gains in expertise early on and generally reach an earnings plateau in their 30s.
Rather than rewarding teachers for degrees and years on the job, Vigdor suggests implementing an “evidence-based salary schedule” that would “directly reward teachers when they demonstrate evidence of greater effectiveness” and, in doing so, shift earnings to the early part of a teacher’s career. Of course, older teachers will not like to have their salaries capped or even docked, but the savings could pay for the increased compensation for younger teachers, who are sure to prefer the plan.
Alternatively, state and local governments could phase in the new approach by grandfathering in current teachers, which would be more expensive but also more politically palatable. Either way, Vigdor finds that an evidence-based salary schedule will promote better teaching, which ought to be our highest priority.