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The Price for Six-Figure Teacher Salaries

Although the average pay for teachers in this country is about $56,000, more and more teachers are now earning $100,000 ("Does It Pay To Pay Teachers $100,000?" NPR, Nov. 19). The question is what price are they paying?

Actually, the trend is not new.  Thousands of public-school teachers (one in 12) in the New York suburbs were earning more than $100,000 annually ten years ago ("The Rise of the Six-Figure Teacher," The New York Times, May 15, 2005). School administrators said the salaries were needed to recruit and retain the best teachers because of the high cost of living there.  In 2010, the Equity Project charter middle school in New York City set a new record with starting salaries for teachers at $125,000.

The difference today is that in exchange for the higher salaries, teachers must agree to competitive performance evaluations and the loss of tenure protection. That's the rub.  So much of teacher performance is determined by the students the teacher happens to inherit.  I saw this so often when I was teaching. Even the worst teachers were made to look good if they were given a class of serious scholars.  Conversely, even the best teachers were made to look bad if they were given a class of unruly delinquents.  

The only way that performance pay can be fair is if students are randomly assigned to teachers. Over time, the best teachers will post impressive results, and the worst teachers will post appalling results.  In other words, the law of averages will make itself felt.  But I don't know how many school administrators would be willing to use random student assignment.  They would feel intense pressure from parents.  

Then there's the problem of favoritism.  Principals can agree to rate teachers strictly on a stipulated protocol but still let personal feelings intrude.  I've written often before in this column about the situation at Brooklyn Technical High School years ago when an abusive principal made life so miserable even for teachers with exemplary records that they requested a transfer.  Bullies in the principal's office know exactly what to do to avoid a grievance.  So before teachers opt for performance pay with strings attached, they need to think out the possible consequences.  Salaries of $100,000 are enticing, but at what price?

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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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