getting what you pay for

Want more young people to aspire to become teachers? Try paying teachers more

What teachers are paid is usually a function of local budgets and politics — not cutting-edge research. But there’s building evidence that higher teacher pay helps encourage people to enter and stay in the classroom.

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, examines interest in teaching across different countries, including the United States.

“In countries where teacher salaries are higher, 15-year-old students are more likely to expect to work as teachers,” the researchers Seong Won Han, Francesca Borgonovi, and Sonia Guerriero conclude, using data from the OECD, the group that administers the PISA exam, which tests 15-year-olds worldwide to evaluate education systems.

The relationship is strong: an increase in teacher pay by 50 percent is associated with a 75 percent increase in high schoolers’ likelihood to say they plan to go into teaching.

This comes as fewer American high school students want to become teachers, according to a 2016 analysis by the ACT, the college-entrance testing company. Policymakers may be particularly nervous about this trend in light of the decline in recent years of college students enrolling in teacher preparation programs.

A major caveat to the study, which is consistent with prior work, is that the results are correlational, meaning the study can’t prove that better salaries cause more high schoolers to become interested in teaching. Moreover, comparing educational systems across countries — with widely varying cultures and contexts — is inherently tricky. The report also shows that other factors beyond salary — like how well-respected teachers are — are related to interest in the career.

Still, the findings generally match up with research from the United States showing that teacher salary matter a great deal.

Increased pay, including through bonuses, tends to get teachers to stay in the job longer. There is less evidence on how compensation affects teacher recruitment, but what exists is generally positive. Higher pay may be particularly important for keeping math and science teachers — often areas of shortage — since they tend to be able to earn higher salaries outside teaching.

One study found that a New York City charter school that pays teachers $125,000 salaries led to notable gains in student achievement (although the analysis couldn’t show whether the hefty paychecks were the cause).

Of course, significant debate exists on whether to base pay on performance and how to distribute retirement benefits. More generally, researchers disagree on whether teachers are over or underpaid, and how exactly to determine this.

The OECD data suggests that teachers are paid substantially less than in most other countries, as a percentage of per capita GDP. A more fine-grained analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that, counting benefits and hours worked, teachers are paid about 11 percent less than similarly educated workers.

Comparisons are challenging: another recent study found that although high school teachers are underpaid, elementary and middle school teachers earn somewhat more than comparable professionals.

But asking teachers if teachers are over or underpaid may be the wrong question — as well as an impossible-to-answer one — according to some researchers. The right question, argued the University of California, Santa Barbara economist Dick Startz in a recent blog post, is, “Are we attracting and retaining enough great teachers?”

“My view,” he continued, “is that we’re getting lots of great teachers, but we’re not getting nearly as many as we need. If you agree, then you should want higher teacher salaries.”

war on teachers?

When union protections disappear, poor schools lose teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski speaks with a student at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

Is a “war on teachers” driving them out of the classroom?

In many states, teachers and their unions have made that case, noting that it’s become tougher to earn tenure, bargaining rights have been diminished, and more of their evaluations are based on test scores.

A new study tries to find out whether the two — recent policy changes and teacher turnover — are really linked. Its findings make it the latest in a handful of recent studies to suggest that the weakening of teachers unions and job protections hits already-struggling schools the hardest.

Focusing on Michigan, the researchers find that a spate of teacher-focused policy changes passed in 2011 and 2012 did not cause an overall increase in teacher turnover. But at schools with lower test scores or more students in poverty, teacher churn jumped.

This, the researchers say, raises an important concern: “That teacher labor market reforms like those implemented in Michigan may disproportionately impact the poorest schools and school districts — those already facing staffing constraints.”

How that turnover affects students is not always clear. In general, teacher turnover has been linked to worse student outcomes, but it can be beneficial if new teachers are better than the ones they replaced. In this case, the researchers don’t know whether teachers left voluntarily or involuntarily, or how effective those teachers were.

The paper, released through Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, examines a series of laws passed in that state in 2011 and 2012. Those laws introduced a new teacher evaluation linked to student test scores, lengthened the time before a teacher could attain tenure, prohibited districts from prioritizing teacher seniority when making layoff decisions, and instituted “right-to-work” provisions that blocked districts from requiring teachers to join unions.

In the years after the laws were passed, teacher turnover spiked. But the researchers say this doesn’t show the impact of the laws, since other factors — like the recession and its after-effects — may have driven those changes.

So to isolate cause and effect, the researchers compared districts where the new laws went into place right away to those that didn’t see changes for a few years. (Some districts had union contracts that were allowed to be maintained until they expired.)

Teacher turnover looked similar in both groups of districts, indicating that the policy changes weren’t what made the difference. Turnover rates for teachers also mirrored those for other school professionals, like counselors, social workers, and psychologists, who researchers assume were less affected by the changes.

“This suggests that the reforms labeled part of a ‘war on teachers’ may not depress teacher morale to the point where they result in a large loss (at least in the short run) of teachers from the profession,” the study says.

(One complicating factor: If everyone in schools, not just teachers, felt like there was a broad-based “war on schools” — and that was true in all districts — this study would not capture the laws’ true influence.)

But the researchers find something different when focusing on disadvantaged schools — both those with more poor students and those with lower test scores — which often have the hardest time keeping teachers. The new laws increased teacher turnover in high-poverty districts from 6.5 percent to about 8 percent each year.

The latest research joins recent research that tries to identify the impact of weakening teacher job protections. One found that gutting unions in Wisconsin substantially reduced student test scores; another showed that limiting teacher tenure in Louisiana led to a spike in teacher turnover. Both papers found the impact was largest on low-performing schools.

Other research, though, has painted a more positive picture. Studies in Chicago, Charlotte, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have linked scaling back job security or seniority provisions to better student outcomes or improved teacher quality — and in some cases those effects have been most felt in disadvantaged schools.

“Perhaps our most important conclusion from this work may be that policymakers should be attuned to the ways in which any major changes to the public education system affect different teachers and different children in different ways,” the Michigan study concludes.

superintendent forum

‘Low pay and low prestige’: How Colorado superintendents want to lift the teaching profession

Thursday's panel (photo by Eric Gorski, Chalkbeat)

The teaching profession, says Bree Lessar, has become “low-pay and low-prestige.”

Professionals in other fields — like architecture, law and medicine — get plenty of support starting off, said Lessar, superintendent of southern Colorado’s LaVeta school district. New teachers “get the most difficult classrooms and kids, and not a lot of resources,” she said.

Lessar needs more than mountain views to attract educators to the 220-student district nearly three hours from Denver. So the district offers what incentives it can: First-year teachers get two planning periods, to better prepare. One-third of the district’s teachers are retired, and there’s talk of exploring ways for the experienced hands to mentor the newcomers.

And yet …

“Superintendents out in the field in Colorado are exercising creativity already,” Lessar said Thursday at the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition’s annual Superintendent Forum. “There needs to be a comprehensive funding solution throughout the state. To build the political will and public will for that, we need to think beyond education alone and think about the economic prosperity we want to see throughout Colorado.”

Lessar was part of a panel of a half-dozen superintendents from rural, suburban and urban areas who joined the heads of the two state education departments to discuss a pressing, timely topic: How to address teacher shortage challenges in Colorado.

Just last week, the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Higher Education released a strategic plan, mandated by lawmakers, to come up with possible solutions.

Here are three big themes that emerged from Thursday’s forum:

Takeaway No 1.: The numbers don’t lie … Colorado, we have a problem

Over the past five years, Colorado has seen a nearly 23 percent dip in the number of students completing education preparation programs in Colorado colleges and universities. Growth in non-traditional paths — such as teacher residencies — hasn’t made up the difference.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes cited a number of factors for the decline — stress, salaries, baby boomers starting to retire, and support and working conditions for teachers starting out.

Transparency about test scores and district performance also is playing a role in perceptions of the profession, said Kermit Snyder, superintendent of the Rocky Ford School District.

“I think that transparency is necessary, but along with it has come a lot of criticisms,” Snyder said. “So teachers really get a beating sometimes … Then the message to students is, ‘It’s a tough profession, you don’t want to be a teacher.’”

Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said some believe teaching “is a job that anyone can do,” and that filters down to decisions about funding and public policy.

Not every corner of the state faces a shortage. The Adams 12 district had a less than 1 percent vacancy in its teaching corps this year, Superintendent Chris Gdowski said. He credited a bonus system for hard-to-fill positions and a new salary schedule for psychologists, speech and language pathologists and similar positions to better compete with the private sector.

Takeaway No. 2: There is no silver bullet — but better pay is on a lot of people’s minds

Pressed to come up with one thing that would make the biggest difference to ease the teacher shortage, the heads of the state’s two education agencies passed, for good reason.

The strategic plan released last week detailed more than 30 strategies ranging from student loan forgiveness and housing incentives to extra pay to attract teachers to rural areas.

“We do know there is no silver bullet,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the higher education department. However, Hunter Reed identified one step as the hardest: “To get our teachers to the cost-of-living wage. It’s critical.” The issue is especially pronounced in Colorado’s rural areas, where 95 percent of teachers salaries are below the cost of living, according to the state.

The strategic plan calls for the state to explore setting a minimum salary for educators pegged to the cost of living in their districts. Snyder, of Rocky Ford, questioned how well that would work, and others wondered how that would prevent better-off districts from cherry-picking strong candidates.

After the forum, Chalkbeat caught up with state lawmakers in attendance to gauge their interest in minimum teacher salaries — something the legislature would need to take up.

“I’m not sure,” said state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and a former social studies teacher who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “The salary piece is important. But talking about the respect, and the opportunities for professional development for teachers is key, and supporting the hard work our teachers are doing every day — making clear this is a noble profession. We need to bring that out at a higher level. It’s not just about the dollar.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Education Committee, said he thinks the idea is viable and worthy of discussion.

Noting one superintendent’s remark about younger teachers not being as focused on retirement benefits, Hill connected the proposal to another discussion about reforms to the state’s troubled public pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA.

“Can we set aside a bucket of this money that could make teachers whole on their salary but that doesn’t incur new PERA obligations as well?” he said. “It’s really shifting our conversation from, ‘What did the economy, and what did hiring and employment look like 20 or 30 years ago, to what does it look like in the 21st century?’”

Takeaway No. 3: It always comes back to money …

So about that “comprehensive funding situation” Lessar, the LaVeta superintendent, yearns for … As you would expect, she was not alone in expressing that wish.

Time and again, superintendents brought up Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools. The state consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in funding K-12 education.

“Nobody says we just want to be average,” said Cherry Creek Superintendent Harry Bull. “Yet in the context of funding, our aspirational goal as superintendents would be to just get to the national average. That would make a substantial difference.”

Multiple efforts to stave off a financial crisis for Colorado schools are underway, including a group of superintendents that has been working on a proposed solution for school funding. A state task force, meanwhile, is charged with reimagining the state’s public school system, with asking voters to approve more money for schools being one possible outcome.

In Colorado, school districts that are able to convince local taxpayers to raise taxes to support schools have a considerable advantage — including in recruiting and keeping teachers.

“We’ve got to move way from this system that allows local (districts) to super-size their funding so much that their next door neighbors cannot compete adequately for staff,” said Gdowski, of Adams 12.