Even before COVID-19 sent students and educators home, teachers’ jobs had grown increasingly complex. Rightful demands for standards matching those of other nations—and for equitable opportunities allowing students to meet or exceed those standards—swelled over recent decades.
With research clearly indicating how important teacher and principal quality are to student learning growth, a thoughtful school staffing and compensation strategy would have been a natural response. Instead, decades of benevolently intended policy shifts snatched dollars from teachers’ pockets as their jobs got harder, while failing to innovate like other professions.
As we explain in Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, the consequences have been devastating for students and committed educators. A vigorous pivot is long overdue.
Over the past five decades, U.S. public education went on a spending spree benefiting nearly everything and everyone—except classroom teachers. Since 1970, real per-pupil spending increased 145 percent, yet real teacher pay was nearly flat, increasing just 7.5 percent (see figure). Teachers work longer hours, so hourly pay actually declined. If teacher pay had increased in proportion to K-12 spending, teachers today would earn nearly $140,000, on average, instead of less than half that.
In 1969-70, more than 50 percent of education spending went to teacher salaries. By 2015-16, that figure was just 30.9 percent. Where did the money go? Spending quadrupled on administration, tripled on facilities and maintenance, and increased eightfold on “other school services.”
Schools also added more teachers but without proportionately lowering typical class sizes—because many in new “teaching” positions do not teach student classrooms. Instead, most perform assisting roles, like instructional interventionist or data coach.
Some additions were critical to help all students learn—such as specialists for English-language learners and students with special needs. But few new roles came with clear authority, time to collaborate with teachers, selectivity for teaching prowess, significant extra pay, or accountability for student learning.
Moreover, schools overwhelmingly continued to use “one-teacher, one-classroom” staffing, with all teachers reporting to the principal and working largely alone. Teachers must leave classrooms to advance, and pay premiums are small unless they become administrators.
Meanwhile, professions like law, medicine, and accounting organized professionals into small teams with diversified roles. Professionals who excelled began leading teams for more pay, providing on-the-job guidance to teammates. Pay typically peaks near age 40—rather than 55 for teachers. Team leaders support an average of five people, while continuing their professional work. Even top legal managers, for example, typically serve clients one-third of the time.
The chance to learn, advance, and earn more in these professions attracted increasing numbers of women away from teaching. The percentage of teaching slots held by top college graduates fell far behind that in other nations, and those who remained had no more support than before to excel.
Not surprisingly, despite increased public education spending, stubborn gaps in student learning remained.
What is the vigorous pivot that’s so needed? The core of our vision is paid, small-team instructional leadership by excellent teachers who have produced high-growth student learning. In schools across the country adopting these “multi-classroom leader” (MCL) roles, design teams including teachers commit to making the MCL role highly selective, paying MCLs significantly more—an average of 20 percent—within schools’ regular budgets, changing schedules to create time for team collaboration and development, and formalizing authority and accountability for student learning. Some teams swap a teaching position for an advanced paraprofessional who supports small-group and individual tutoring while teachers collaborate and serve more students. Because paraprofessional roles pay less, savings fund higher pay for MCLs and team teachers.
These teams also help build strong teacher pipelines from the very beginning, preparing yearlong, paid teacher residents and entry-level teachers for instructional excellence under the guidance of MCLs—all within regular budgets.
The vision doesn’t stop with MCL teams. School principals who succeed in leading teams of MCLs to achieve high-growth student learning should become multischool leaders, leading small groups of schools, for more pay. District- and state-level staffing should be redesigned to focus fewer jobs on better support for teachers. States should return the savings to educators, through universally higher salaries and secure retirement benefits.
This might sound grandiose, but nearly 500 schools have already begun or committed to Multi-Classroom Leadership in an initiative called Opportunity Culture. Third-party research found that teachers who joined MCL teams shifted from producing 50th-percentile learning growth, on average, to top-quartile growth in math, and nearly that in reading. Our team analyzed more data showing a similar impact: By the fourth year of Opportunity Culture implementation, the odds of schoolwide high growth were over 50 percent greater than in other schools. Ninety-nine percent of MCLs and 86 percent of all staff want these roles to continue, according to annual surveys.
These schools and districts are leading the way. Two states, North Carolina and Arkansas, have begun reallocating their funds to support transition to paid, within-budget multiclassroom leader roles. Leading philanthropists have begun supporting the transition to paid, within-budget residencies on multiclassroom leader teams, too.
It’s time to go bigger. More state, national, and philanthropic leaders must join their determination to reach far more students—and their deserving educators—with far more opportunity, much faster.