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Our 'Social Security Crisis' in Teacher Compensation

There's little doubt that the Social Security system is broken. While it provides a critical safety net for senior citizens, it's one of the worst retirement investments I could possibly make. I honestly don't expect to see a dime of the Social Security tax I pay returned to me as retirement benefits.

At some point, I'd prefer to see Social Security phased out (except as a safety net), so that people who are depending on their future benefits will still get them, but younger people won't be perpetually forced to pay into a system that can never pay them back. If this means I pay a bit more in taxes to support those receiving benefits during the phase-out, that's fine with me.

The problem is that there's no good place to draw the line. Which cohort of Americans will be the first to get no retirement benefits after a lifetime of paying into Social Security?

We face a similar generational issue when it comes to teacher compensation reform. Secretary Duncan and others have been talking about raising teacher salaries for a while now (unfortunately, primarily via merit pay schemes), yet there is inadequate political will to pay existing teachers more.

Paying all teachers more may be the right thing to do (I certainly think it is). The upcoming film from the Teacher Salary Project documents the harm that low salaries cause to teachers, their families, and their students. There are plenty of good common-sense reasons that teachers should earn more.

In our current political climate, though, philanthropists are interested in "buying better student achievement," and I can't help but think our leading policymakers agree (though the evidence still suggests that such direct efforts to "buy" achievement are doomed to failure). Moral arguments that teachers deserve more aren't going to carry much weight, at least for the foreseeable future. I believe the human capital argument is the only effective way to advocate for higher teaching salaries at the moment. If we want better results, we need to invest in our teaching workforce.

The problem is that everyone is talking about investing in new teachers, not existing teachers. As nearly everyone agrees, teachers are already doing their best, and paying performance bonuses or just giving plain old raises won't result in better teaching. Again, there's the retention angle, but if the attrition rate drops off dramatically after the five-year mark, it's hard to argue that career teachers need retention bonuses to stay in the profession.

The policy incentives, then, favor putting newer teachers on different compensation systems, and just like the social security system, there's no good way to draw the line between old and new. While there's no reason to assume that new teachers are superior, there's simply no way to pay for major salary bumps if they're given to everyone.

The bottom line is that we need to pay teachers more, but right now, there isn't much political will to do so. Across-the-board salary increases for the nation's 3,700,000 teachers would be breathtakingly expensive. The US spends approximately $78 billion in federal funds on K-12 education; doubling this amount, and devoting all of the increase to teacher salaries, would only provide about $21,000 per teacher in additional compensation, which would leave most below the $60,000-$150,000 range Secretary Duncan recently mentioned. And as I said earlier this week, I don't think there's much room for states and districts to chip in more.

Given that the funds for increasing teacher compensation are limited, I predict that we'll see two things happen with new teacher compensation in regards to this generational issue.

First, fellowship programs will continue to experiment with stipends and other third-party salary support for certain teachers in certain programs. The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship is one example, and there are bound to be others. These programs will almost certainly be limited to new teachers, given the interests of the program funders.

Second, I expect that we'll see more salary differentiation by teaching speciality, which will probably take the form of signing bonuses. One-time signing bonuses (which can be issued to veteran teachers as well as new teachers) can address immediate recruiting and retention issues, without creating disparities in salaries that may outlast the labor market conditions that prompted them.

In the meantime, we're stuck with a system that doesn't pay enough, yet is already breaking the bank. I'm not sure how we can best move to a more up-to-date compensation system given our current political reality. How can we create a better teacher compensation system while dealing with the "Social Security" problem?

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