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Making Teacher Compensation a Non-Issue

Last week, I shared a provocative quote from Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy:

All we need to do to acquire a very poor teaching force is nothing.

Tucker is saying not that we presently have a very poor teaching force, but that our teacher education programs are now attracting the weakest students they've ever attracted, because they simply cannot compete for the stronger students. This is happening for both historic and economic reasons, as he explains in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:

When the baby boom was leaving our colleges, many people predicted that the coming baby dearth was going to result in great reductions in the size of college student bodies as the size of the whole cohort declined massively. But, though the size of the cohort certainly declined, the size of student bodies did not. The data suggest that the colleges made a fateful decision to lower their standards to fill their classrooms. There is every reason to believe that this happened in our teachers colleges in just the same way it happened in other colleges, but it was also at this time that opportunities for women and minorities greatly expanded, which would mean that the quality of applicants in teachers colleges would have suffered from both of these causes, not just one.

Furthermore, analysts are now noticing a large falloff in applications for admission to teachers colleges all over the country, a result of the financial crisis. Potential candidates, who used to view teaching as almost immune from the business cycle and therefore one of the most secure of all occupations, are noticing that teachers are being laid off in very large numbers and now see teaching as a very risky bet.

Put these three points together--highly qualified college educated women and minorities abandoning teaching as a career, the drop in admission standards following the baby boom and the decision by many capable students to avoid teaching because of the widespread teacher layoffs, and we can see the danger ahead for the United States. All we need to do to acquire a very poor teaching force is nothing. Inaction, not action, will bring about this result. It is critical that this trend be reversed. We cannot afford to continue bottom fishing for prospective teachers while the best performing countries are cream skimming. p. 13-14

What's the solution? Raising admission standards for teacher education programs, yes, but of course this won't work without also dramatically increasing salaries in the profession. Starting accountants and computer programmers earn 50% more than starting teachers, so we're already in the hole when it comes to competing with other professions for the top candidates. If this is going to change, federal policymakers will have to play a large role.

Teacher salaries are bargained at the local level, where paying dramatically higher salaries never seems like a good idea. A slight edge in hiring—recruiting more aggressively, offering contracts earlier, streamlining the application process—can dramatically tip the talent pool in the right direction; raising salaries by 50% seems like a hopelessly blunt and costly solution. In other words, school districts do not have to compete with other professions; they only have to compete with other school districts. As a result, there's very little upward pressure on teacher salaries.

At the national level, though, this is an absurd system. Our school districts are competing with each other for an inadequate pool of well-qualified applicants. Nationally, we're still falling farther and farther behind the nations that have more purposeful compensation strategies.

Tucker explains how several top-performing nations pay their teachers:

Most of our competitors have formal policies that peg teachers' compensation to the top ranges of their civil servants' compensation system or to the compensation of other professionals, such as engineers, in the private sector. Their aim is to make sure that young people making career choices see teaching as offering compensation comparable to that offered by the more attractive professions.
...
At the International Summit on the Teaching Profession convened by Secretary Duncan in New York City in March 2011, the Minister of Education of Singapore offered the observation that the goal of compensation policy ought to be to "take compensation off the table" as a consideration when able young people are making career decisions. p. 14

When compensation is "off the table," our best and brightest people who want to teach can teach without worrying about whether they can send their kids to college. They can choose the career that is the best fit for their talents and interests, without worrying about buying a house. Once again, as it has for most of its history in the US, teaching will attract the people who want to teach, not the people who have no better options.

But paying teachers enough to take compensation off the table is going to cost a lot of money, and all signs point to the probability that it's going to have to be federal money.

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