Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Can a $125,000 Salary Make You a Better Teacher?

We need students to be more proficient and more prepared. But can increased salaries and $20,000 bonuses really make teachers more effective?

Everyone is looking for the silver bullet to fix education—and if the “silver bullet” doesn’t work, then a silver shotgun shell may suffice for some districts that are trying dramatic overhauls. And for many of these districts, it’s working.

But every now and then, we trade in a “silver bullet” for something a little more, well, green. President Obama has a plan to give science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers bonuses of up to $20,000 in 2013. A total of $1 billion (Arne Duncan calls it “new money”) is in the president’s 2013 budget that will support up to 10,000 teachers. Administrators will hand pick which educators merit such a merry gift.

The Pit of Merit-Based Pay (and Despair)

Yikes. Did I just say “merit”? Whether or not that word is taboo (and a political quagmire), it’s worth the hassle if it means that teachers start to get more students to surpass those ever-elusive proficiency rates. So the over-arching question is this: will more money really make teachers more effective?

There are two inherent problems in saying that bigger pay checks make better teachers:
  1. The entire idea around merit-based pay is that teachers somehow just don’t care quite enough about their jobs or their students
  2. The assumption is based on the idea that teachers are obviously holding out for better money before they bestow upon their students the keys of knowledge
Merit-based pay is tricky, and it is problematic (as outlined above). However, no one can deny the vital importance of a teacher’s work, and we want our best and brightest teachers to teach the upcoming generation.

$125,000 Salaries Make Better Teachers…Right?

So now let’s talk about the money trap. There is a school in New York known simple as the Equity Project (TEP) Charter School. TEP says on its website, “TEP teachers are valued and sustained through revolutionary compensation: a $125,000 annual salary and the opportunity to earn a significant annual bonus based on school-wide performance . . . . In short, hiring and paying master teachers what they are worth is a cost-effective mechanism for boosting student achievement.”

TEP is one year old. They submitted their annual report with the following data—and the following disclaimer:

TEP had only 5th and 6th grades in 2010-11 so attainment of this goal will not be assessed until the 2012-13 school year when TEP’s initial 5th grade cohort completes 8th grade.

2013 Cohort (TEP 6th graders in 2010-11):
  • # students in cohort 2009-10: 124 (ELA), 123 (Math)
  • # returning students in cohort in 2010-11: 118
    • NYS ELA Exam: 31% (36 / 118) at or above Level 3
    • NYS Math Exam: 42% (49/118) at or above Level 3
2014 Cohort (TEP 5th graders in 2010-11):
  • # students in cohort in 2010-11: 122 (ELA), 124 (Math)
    • NYS ELA Exam: 31% (38/122) at or above Level 3
    • NYS Math Exam: 56% (69/124) of TEP 5th graders performed at or above Level 3

That’s it. That’s the summum bonum of the first (very expensive) year—31% proficiency in ELA. Was it worth the cost?

We’ve Tried Everything! What Is Left to Do?

On the surface level of this evidence, it would be easy to argue that they had wasted budgets on performance-based pay. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you will find that the problem is not with the pay at all. It’s with how we measure and train effective teachers.

Mr. Obama’s budget plan and TEP’s strategy assume that bigger pay checks make better teachers. But if I’m an author (and I am), then a bigger percentage from a publishing firm is not going to make me write a better book. For me to become a better author, I need to learn from better authors. I need training that is relevant to my genre, I need to connect with my audience, and I sure would like to have a mentor or at least differentiated instruction for highly specific needs. And when I write better books, then I get a bigger percentage.

The Teacher Effectiveness System

We need effective teachers. We need a systemic approach to helping teachers grow. When we have better teachers, we will have students who learn more (and that’s a proven fact).

Is the Teacher Effectiveness System a silver bullet for that? Well, yes and no. It is not a “silver bullet” in that buying the tools for that approach will make it happen (not any more than paying teachers more money makes them more effective). But applying that approach every day and using the tools to their utmost—well, then you’re all but guaranteed to get the results you might expect.


  1. It's not a simple answer... and having taught for more than twenty years in 1-12, higher, middle and lower socio-economic areas, I see many different motivations.

    But let me ask several short questions, that may add some other perspectives...

    Why did the majority of teachers begin teaching?

    Have you asked a experienced teachers what keeps them in their role?
    Is it money?

    I now work for myself and thus my motivations have changed. Entrepreneurs are motivated by money. Teachers? I don't think so, but they certainly deserve a professional level of income [if they behave accordingly]

    Even though I am many years out of the classroom, there is still nothing more gratifying / rewarding / fulfilling than having a past student come back to you as an adult and recount your impact in their life. That could almost suck me back into teaching.... ALMOST!!!

    Isn't is the love of teaching, of impacting lives for the future, that makes the BEST teachers? My friends from college days [35 years ago] that are still teaching LOVE the kids they work with... and it certainly holds them in their position. It's not the money!

  2. By the same token, however, increasing compensation can also have a major effect of attracting better minds to the profession in the first place. I don't know any teachers who say "I'm not paid well enough to try to help my students achieve." I do, however, know plenty of people who would never enter a profession that is so financially prohibitive. One spends tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, usually subsidized heavily by loans, suffer the unforgivable insult of having to pay to be allowed to do an internship, then enter a profession that a single adult can barely make ends meet doing.
    Money is not the incentive needed for current teachers, I agree. But it just might be an incentive to attract better teachers in the future - and it might begin to do justice to those who have taken up this profession in the first place.

  3. I agree with Boedullus. As a 19 year old choosing a major in college, I wanted to be a teacher, but I decided that teachers didn't make enough. I went to law school. After practicing 10 years, I married a lawyer and had children. At 42 I became a teacher and love it. I am lucky enough to be able to do something I really want to do, and can still afford the life style I want due to my husband's job. I wonder how many others decide against the career because they believe they can't afford to be a teacher (and how many men do we lose because they can't support a family on the salary?!)

  4. Very well written. Up front, I'm going to admit that I don't know a whole lot about this issue. That being said, I agree with your point that giving teachers more money isn't going to suddenly make them better teachers.

    However, I don't think that's the point of increasing teachers' salaries. As it is right now, students with the best grades, most talents, and highest test scores (these aren't perfectly correlated, I will note) are more likely to pursue careers that offer higher monetary incentives. Granted, I know a great many people who went into teaching because they feel passionately about education and about being a good influence on young students who often don't benefit from such role models at home and in the media. Unfortunately, market forces tend to drive the best students (many who would be outstanding educators) to business, medicine, law, engineering, etc. rather than education.

    What I suppose I am trying to get at is that I don't out rightly disagree with anything in the article; however, I feel that it misses the point in a lot of ways. The point of higher pay is to attract people who will be better teachers. A job offer of $125k will have a much wider applicant pool than one offering $25k.

  5. What's wrong with this picture?
    You just finished college and started your family, you are the primary bread winner for your new and young family. Not to worry, as a new teacher in the state of Utah, you qualify for the federal "free lunch" program because you are paid below the poverty line!

  6. Today the wages are very low. The government has to increase the salaries because people have financial difficulties. Many people take same day loan till payday for consumers. These loans today are almost the only one best solution for people who need cash. Only the government can solve this problem.