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Will Higher Teacher Salaries Pay Off?

The latest proposal for recruiting and retaining the best teachers involves paying them starting salaries of $125,000 a year and giving them more professional responsibility ("Investing in teacher pay could spur big gains for California students," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 9). Its supporters point to the Equity Project charter middle school in New York City as evidence that the strategy works.

Since its start five years ago, TEP, as the school is known, has posted impressive results for its mostly low-income Hispanic students. For example, the school has produced test score gains equal to an extra 1.6 years in math, with smaller gains in science and language arts compared with similar students in the city for the fourth consecutive year.

I support far higher salaries for teachers, even though some critics have argued that teachers are overpaid by about 52 percent more than they could earn in private business ("Public School Teachers Aren't Underpaid," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2011). But the problem of making teaching a career for the best and the brightest is more complex than it appears. 

I remind TEP supporters that thousands of teachers in the New York City suburbs have been earning salaries of $100,000 since 2005 ("6-Figure Salaries? To Many Teachers, a Matter of Course," The New York Times, Jun. 5, 2005).  I haven't seen the latest figures, but I bet salaries in suburban schools are now north of $100,000. I grant that $125,000 is attractive, but what are the strings attached?  TEP offers fewer fringe benefits and requires teachers to work extra hours to replace many administrators.

It's too soon to know if the additional pay will be sufficient to retain exemplary teachers under these conditions.  I make a distinction between recruitment and retention because what teachers say they are willing to do to earn the salary premium at the outset is not always what they are willing to do year after year.  As a result, TEP may find that the teachers who were so eager to sign up eventually burn out.  I've written before about what is known as compassion fatigue. Some say that if salaries were high enough, the problem would disappear. But realistically, how high is high enough? Could teachers make $150,000 or more a year?  I doubt that will ever happen.

I maintain that teaching today is far harder than at any other time in our history.  That's why teachers are fleeing the classroom in droves ("Where Have All The Teachers Gone?" NPR Ed, Mar. 10). To critics who claim that teaching is not nearly as tough as teachers say, I challenge them to spend two weeks in an inner-city classroom.  They wouldn't last more than a few days.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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