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The 'Quality Counts' Message on Teacher Pay

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Boosting teacher pay is a hot education reform topic on the presidential campaign trail, especially for Democrats. Barack Obama even talked about it last night during his second-place-finish speech in the New Hampshire primary, saying, "We [need to] stop talking about how great teachers are and start rewarding them for their greatness."

It's a popular message with unions, whose members are a key voting bloc. Teacher pay is relatively easy for voters to understand in short sound bites. Plus, many voters find it hard to argue with the need to pay teachers more money for the vital, and difficult, public service job they perform.

But if the end game is, indeed, to recruit and retain new teachers, then EdWeek's new state-by-state "Quality Counts 2008" report suggests the solution is far more complicated than anything that can fit in a 15-second sound bite.

And this means the teacher-pay proposals of the candidates merit more scrutiny. For the most part, this scrutiny is limited to Democrats, who are the only ones seriously talking about teacher pay issues.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's plan to make the average starting salary for teachers in America $40,000 could be seen as overly simplistic. And that's because, according to Quality Counts, teacher pay varies widely by state and is a bigger issue in some parts of the country than others. Montana and Rhode Island, for example, have median teacher salaries that are above those for comparable jobs. But teachers in North Carolina and Missouri make far less than peers in similar jobs. So the solutions may be different for different states.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, of New York, has been rather vague on teacher pay issues, except to make it perfectly clear she thinks merit pay for teachers is "demeaning." Though she may not like merit pay, it is clear, from what the Quality Counts researchers found, that good teachers now have little hope of making big salary gains, which could hurt efforts to retain the best educators.

And speaking of money, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' plan calls for giving teachers $15,000 bonuses for teaching in high-poverty schools. But money may not be enough, as explained in the Quality Counts story, "Working Conditions Trump Pay." Teachers also want good building leadership, support from their colleagues and bosses, and classroom resources.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has one of the most comprehensive plans, which touches on everything from supporting mentoring programs and common planning time to recruiting teacher-candidates for high-needs schools. But even he overlooks a common problem for states: data quality. Quality Counts revealed that only 20 states have, and can verify, their ability to track the number of highly qualified teachers overall, and the number in high-poverty schools.

Without good data collection, it will be hard to gauge the effectiveness of any new teacher programs. But try getting the words "data quality" or "data collection" in a voter-friendly, 15-second sound bite.

3 Comments

It is impossible to gather "Quality Data" to determine which teachers deserve merit pay. How do we compare a kindergarten teacher instilling the love of reading to a chemistery teacher teaching students who will discover future cures for cancer or even a PE coach who has given a kid a real chance at seeing a hopeful future. Until we as a society value teachers for not only test scores but how they touch the lives of their students in ways we may never know we will never pay them enough. Society thinks nothing of paying a professional sport figure a salary for one season that a professional teacher will nerver even come close to in an entire 30 year career. Yet we still enter the profession and do the best we can with what we are given. It is the nature of the teacher in us that keeps us here. Most of us really do try to make a difference in the the lives of our students even when the test scores don't always show it.

Michele, another excellent post.

Recent research has shown that the kind of "battle pay" Edwards is proposing doesn't attract teachers to low performing districts.

The jury is still out on merit pay as well. It will be interesting to see how Obama proposes to use the federal government to influence local and state salary issues. Funding these kinds of programs federally and across the country would be cost prohibitive.

Google William Sanders at the University of Tennessee regarding work he's done on value-added assessments. It might be an eye-opener for some.

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