American Enterprise Institute, February 8, 2019, by Frederick M. Hess and Amy Cummings
Frustration with teacher pay is widespread. This is true even considering that school spending (per pupil, adjusted for inflation) has grown by more than 30 percent since 1992. A big part of the challenge is that it’s tougher to pay teachers more when school systems keep adding bodies. In recent decades, schools have added staff at a faster rate than they have added students. Between 1992 and 2015, for instance, student enrollment grew by 20 percent – but the teacher workforce grew faster still.
Today, there are more than 3.1 million teachers in the United States. The sheer number of teaching positions makes it not only difficult to pay well, but also to recruit as many talented educators as we’d like. Each year, schools race to hire more than 300,000 new teachers, even as U.S. colleges award just 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees across all fields. In other words, current circumstances mean that schools need to hire one out of every six graduates – simply to plug attrition. The very shape of the teaching profession has made it increasingly difficult to recruit or compensate educators in a fashion that both attracts and retains talent.
So what can we do about this? Rather than simply shovel more money into the familiar system, a better option is to rethink the profession of teaching. Here are four promising ways to do that:
Identify and reward good teachers for the role they play in their schools. Proponents of compensation reform have too often advocated variations on the Pavlovian approach of paying more for higher student scores, while neglecting the broader design of the profession. After all, nearly 90 percent of school districts in the U.S. still use a step-and-lane pay scale, in which teachers enter the profession at roughly the same salary and with roughly the same job description.12 Every teacher pursues the same bonuses and seeks to climb the same career ladder.
However, there are initiatives that are wrestling with how to reward good teachers for the role they play in their schools, such as Opportunity Culture.13 In such schools, a multi-classroom leader (MCL) leads a team of about six teachers, coaching and mentoring while themselves continuing to teach. MCLs are accountable for the results of the entire team’s students and receive supplemental pay for their extra time and effort. Such initiatives encourage exceptional teachers to remain in the profession and provide an opportunity for upward mobility.
Ultimately, the goal is to rethink the teaching profession to meet the demands of the 21st century. We have been slowed by habits of mind, culture, and institutional inertia, but we are feeling our way toward a new and hopefully more fruitful era of teaching and learning. Expanding the pool of potential teachers, incorporating instructional specialization, utilizing technology, and rewarding teachers for the role they play in their schools all provide terrific teachers the potential to make a bigger impact not only within, but beyond their classrooms.