If I Were A Rich Man

March 01, 2000 6 min read

High school teacher Mike Truitt made a job change 18 months ago that doubled his salary and halved his workweek. He went to work for Bill Gates.

Truitt, who is 30, spent four years teaching history and English before joining Microsoft Corp., the world’s leading software company, based in Redmond, Washington. In his new job, he’s still a teacher of sorts, answering customers’ questions about software over the telephone. But the hand-to- mouth existence he once lived is now a fading memory. Truitt and his wife have been able to buy a house—a middle-class rite of passage that he says would have been impossible on his $24,000 teaching salary. “I was looking at trying to start a family and support a family,” he says. After briefly considering school administration, “it was time to cut my losses.”

Unfortunately for districts trying to recruit teachers, Truitt’s decision is becoming more common as educators flee to the booming high-tech industry. In some regions of the country, experienced teachers are leaving for better-paying, less stressful jobs in the private sector. In others, such as the Boston area, districts are finding they can’t compete for new college graduates with backgrounds in math, science, and computers.

Money is a primary reason. The national average salary for beginning teachers in 1997-98 was $25,735, according to a survey released last year by the American Federation of Teachers. In contrast, new college grads received offers averaging $40,523 in math or statistics, $40,920 in computer science, and $42,862 in engineering. As teachers gain experience, the salary gap with other fields grows even wider, the survey found. While teachers earned an average salary of $39,347 in 1997-98, computer-systems analysts made $63,072, and engineers earned $64,489 a year.

Some school systems are trying to combat the classroom brain drain by importing teachers from other countries. New York City is recruiting math and science teachers from Austria, using ads in Austrian newspapers. The district has 24 Austrian teachers this year, each of whom is working on a temporary, individual visa. Chicago, meanwhile, is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to bring in foreign math and science teachers for up to six years. Though other districts have sought teachers abroad, the Chicago initiative is unique: INS will issue visas similar to those used to fill shortages in the high-tech industry.

Other districts have begun paying one-time signing bonuses to hard-to-recruit teachers. And district officials in Boston are contemplating going even further: In upcoming contract talks, they will propose to pay new math and science teachers more than instructors in other subjects. Breaking the 50-year tradition of a single salary schedule, however, isn’t likely to be easy. Teachers have traditionally viewed attempts to differentiate their pay as statements of the relative worth of various teaching specialties—setting off competition and fears of favoritism.

“It’s time to start looking at pay differently, based on the market,” argues Michael Contompasis, the district’s chief operating officer. “We can’t have everybody at similar pay levels any more, it seems to me.”

A national commission led by former U.S. Senator John Glenn is expected to make recommendations next fall on improving the quality of math and science teaching. Whether the commission will address the sticky issue of salaries is unclear. “You hear proposals to pay high school math teachers more,” says Dennis Van Roekel, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association and a high school math teacher who serves on the commission. “But the truth is every elementary teacher is a math teacher.” In fact, U.S. Department of Education data show that 61 percent of all teachers have some responsibility for teaching math or science during the school day.

A paper prepared for the commission suggests that math and science teachers leave the profession for different reasons than their peers. Teaching as a whole had a turnover rate of 14.3 percent in 1994-95, compared with 16 percent for math and science teachers-a statistically insignificant difference. But 40 percent of the math and science teachers who left blamed their exit on job dissatisfaction, compared with 29 percent of all teachers.

“There is such a huge salary gap that one might almost expect more turnover among math and science teachers than there is,” says Richard Ingersoll, author of the paper and a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia in Athens.

For teachers who work in high-tech areas, such as Truitt, the lure of private industry can be difficult to resist. Consider Mike Reilly’s decision to leave his job at Annandale High School in northern Virginia. His brother, who works at one of the many technology companies that have sprung up in suburban Washington, D.C., convinced the 34-year-old math teacher that he could earn far more in private industry. So Reilly parlayed his hobby of programming computers into a job at American Management Systems in Fairfax, Virginia, where he soon expects to double his $35,000 teaching salary.

Along with being able to take bathroom breaks and talk to colleagues whenever he wishes, Reilly relishes the chance to learn on the job. “I didn’t see that opportunity to advance and develop in the school ranks, unless you do it on your own,” he says. Still, he adds, “I would go back if the salary was the same.”

In Washington state, where low pay prompted a series of teacher walkouts last spring, the contrast between salaries in education and technology fields is particularly glaring. But teachers who have made the switch to private industry say they were lured away by more than just better pay. Brad Stauffer, 26, felt stymied in the Lake Washington district, where he taught 3rd and 4th grades. Stauffer had trained other teachers in technology and designed an online curriculum for using various software programs. But he left to work for Reality Based Learning, a start-up company in Redmond, when he wasn’t hired as the 24,000-student district’s technology coordinator.

“Teaching is not results-based,” Stauffer says. “It doesn’t matter how much time I put in-I couldn’t move anywhere, laterally or forward.’' But outside education, he observes, “the people running the Internet are the blue-haired and pierced-nose 22-year-olds.”

In Boston, where competition for college graduates with mathematics, computer, or science skills is fierce, the public schools are losing out. An expected wave of teacher retirements will only increase the need for qualified teachers, says the district’s Contompasis. “We can’t find a certified math or science person right now,” he says. “We’ve got to get people who know the subject matter and are capable of teaching to levels of rigor far beyond what has historically been the case.”

This dire situation is leading the city to tamper with something considered inviolable in many districts: the salary schedule. The Boston Teachers Union contract already permits the city to fill fields with shortages by hiring teachers paid at the top of the scale-$55,931 a year rather than the $36,996 starting salary. But both Edward Doherty, president of the union, and Contompasis note the 15-year-old provision hasn’t been used much.

In upcoming talks for a contract to replace the agreement that expires in August, the district hopes to establish a teacher salary above the current top pay that would be more competitive with private industry. Would such a proposal fly with the union? “We would have some difficulty with that,” Doherty says. “That would not be popular with a lot of teachers. Your English and social studies and fine arts teachers would argue that their talents are just as valuable.”

—Ann Bradley