Today’s Opinion Journal offers a summary of a recently-released study on teacher pay in America. And, it’s safe to say that the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher’s union, won’t like it one bit.

According to the authors of the study, Jay P. Greene and Marcus Winters, the “average” classroom teacher in America earns $34.06 an hour in 2005. And that number isn’t something that Professor Greene or Mr. Winters simply pulled out of a hat; it’s based on hard data from federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau also determined that the median teacher wage is 36% higher than the hourly compensation rate for an average white collar worker, and 11% higher than than the hourly wage for an average professional or technical worker. In terms of hourly pay, most teachers are not underpaid.

Of course, there is a slight catch in these figures, since they’re based on the number of hours actually worked. Many teachers are off in the summer, and have lengthy breaks at the end of the year and in the spring. Dividing a teacher’s salary over a 12-month period, the hourly compensation rate begins to decline. But, as Greene and Winters note, many educators supplement their income by teaching in summer school programs, or working another job. Those wages (which are also excluded from the compensation calculation) would tend to push hourly pay rates back toward the national average, or in some cases, above the $34.06 level cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Greene and Winters argue that the compensation debate is important for a couple of reasons. First, there is a long-standing perception that teachers are underpaid for their labors, and secondly, Congressional efforts to extend the “No Child Left Behind” program are expected to focus on the pay issue, with likely proposals to increase teacher salaries across the board. The NEA and American Federation of Teachers would certainly like to shape the debate in those terms, but is it the best approach for fixing failing schools?

According to Greene and Winters, the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” As they observe, teacher compensation has been (historically) linked to the number of years spent in the classroom, and the amount of advanced education and certifications earned by educators. They believe that teacher pay should be linked to student achievement, following the example of a pilot programs in Arkansas and Florida. In the Arkansas study (which Greene and Winters helped direct), researchers found that student proficiency increased (and scores on standardized tests rose) when teachers received bonuses linked to student performance. The Florida program achieved similar results.

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As a “reformed” educator, I find Greene and Winters’s arguments to be compelling. We can debate teacher pay levels all day, but there’s no doubt that compensation benchmarks for educators are in need of serious reform. In most districts, even the most gifted teachers still make less money than their peers if they lack a graduate degree, certain certifications, or simply haven’t spent as much time in the classroom. And, not surprisingly, those are the very teachers who often leave the classroom after a few years, deciding that their skills can secure better pay and benefits in the private sector.

At the other end of the spectrum, veteran teachers who earn the highest salaries are, in some cases, less likely to remain in the classroom. After “proving” themselves in the classroom, many teachers move on to supervisory and administrative positions that don’t include any instructional duties. At the last school were I worked, our two best teachers were the principal and the athletic director. Together, they had more than 40 years of classroom experience. And quite naturally, they had no desire to give up their administrative posts and return to the classroom. Unfortunately, this “cycle” helps perpetuate many of the problems evident in our educational system, where the best teachers often work in non-teaching positions. The quality of instruction suffers under this approach, and test scores remain stagnant.

Linking teacher pay to test scores could be an effective means for rewarding our best teachers, and keeping them in the classroom. Unfortunately, the approach favored by Greene, Winters and other education reformers will never get a fair hearing from the NEA, and their Democratic friends in Congress. As for the White House, President Bush sees “No Child Left Behind” as one of his legacies, and a desire to see the program continue (coupled with the power shift in Congress) leaves him unwilling to take on the education establishment. An extension of “No Child Left Behind” will almost certainly include teacher pay raises, but they probably won’t reward the educators who actually make a difference, sparking student skills and achievement that can be quantified by standardized tests.


Addendum: The Green-Winters study also refutes one of the classic arguments for increased teacher pay, the fact that many educators spend a good chunk of their free time on job-related tasks, such as grading papers or developing lesson plans. As the authors note, many professionals take their work home at night, and their compensation packages (typically) don’t reward the extra effort, either.

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