Paradoxes of Increasing Teacher Pay

According to the OECD, the average American teacher has a starting salary of $39,000 a year. When compared to many other countries US teachers are paid pretty well, but within the US itself, where the average college graduate has a starting salary of around $50,000, teachers make significantly less than many comparable careers given the amount of education that is required to have the position (a masters of education is still expected in many states). Despite the fact that teaching is the 4th most prestigious career out of 800 occupations within the US, teaching salaries don’t reflect their supposed social importance.

One common and popular position within education reform is that we can improve our schools by just paying teachers more. The sentiment behind this is understandable. It says that we value teachers, we value our schools, and we want to reflect that value in how much we pay our teachers. But it leads to a sort of unfortunate “paradox” when you look closer→ by improving our schools through higher teacher pay are we either expecting that (1) existing teachers will perform better once they are paid more or that (2) we will replace existing teachers with more capable teachers who will be drawn by the higher salary.

I’m going to be a K12 public school math teacher next year, and I am extremely appreciative of all of the teachers in my life. I think they deserve better pay and benefits and I don’t intend to come off like I look down on the profession or the people who enter the profession. For the most part, teachers are capable, incredible people who work hard, stressful jobs that aren’t fully appreciated. However, the sad truth is that education majors are consistently the lowest performing students in college. As opposed to other countries like “Singapore, Finland, and South Korea who recruit teachers only from the top-third of college students,” the US consistently pulls their teachers from the lowest performing major. While that isn’t universally true — there are obviously high-performing and extremely capable education majors along with many capable teachers who enter without any background in education — it seems clear that the majority of our top students are not finding their way into the classroom.

Now of course there is no guarantee that the highest performing students would become the best teachers. You could even argue that you’d want the teachers who love teaching so much that they do it despite the relatively low salary and high stress. After all, you want teachers who care about their profession and care about their kids and do it for reasons other than just pay.

There are some reports that have suggested a clear connection between international teacher pay and student performance, and there are case studies of high paying schools within the US that have had very impressive student gains. But none of the studies I’ve seen so far have explicitly investigated whether the impacts of increased teacher pay on student performance are caused by existing teachers performing better with increased pay or by an outright replacement of existing teachers with better qualified candidates once the pay is increased.

The latter case study looked at the Equity Project, a charter school in New York City that experimented with paying teachers $125,000 a year. It saw impressive gains in three-year student growth, but it also had a lot of forced teacher resignations and it offered the highest paid public teaching positions in New York City at the time. While there are good reasons to questions parts of the study, I think it’d be reasonable to assume that the school was able to hire some of the most qualified teachers in New York City. This may suggest that any improvements in student performance came not from better supported existing teachers, but by the fact that the school was able to buy the best teachers in the area.

Though I fully support increasing teacher pay and benefits, I think that it is worth further investigating how any major efforts to increase teacher salary could impact current teachers. If the president in 2020 decides to make some massive reform that doubled teacher salaries nationally, our current teacher shortage would shrink, new candidates would come in, and the status of the career as a whole would drastically change. Maybe the top college students would rethink their offers from McKinsey and Goldman, and maybe the education system as a whole would change for the better. But, it also seems like many existing low-performing teachers and many hopeful teachers in education programs could be pushed out of the job by higher-performing candidates chasing better pay. It’s of course not clear that any of this would happen in this extreme hypothetical, but the point stands→ we need to get more serious about what we mean and what we want when we start proposing changes to the existing education system. Though on the face of it “increasing teacher salaries” sounds like a well-intentioned and sentimental policy proposal, in practice, what it might really say is that many of our current teachers aren’t good enough and we are willing to pay more to get better people into the position.