Considering that many schools lack funds for such basics as textbooks, the notion of paying top teachers $100,000 salaries may strike some as extravagant. Nevertheless, after Brian Crosby, a veteran English teacher at Hoover High School in Glendale, California, proposed just that in a 1998 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, the response was so overwhelmingly favorable that he decided to enlarge his thesis into a book.
The result is The $100,000 Teacher: The Solution to America’s Declining Public School System (Capital Books). In addition to the compensation issue, the book also addresses the need for better working conditions, more flexible unions, and a revamping of teacher evaluation systems.
“It’s the teachers, stupid,” Crosby likes to assert, claiming that getting, and keeping, high-quality faculty members should be the focal point of all school reform. Throughout The $100,000 Teacher, he expresses anger at a society that claims to admire teachers yet spends its education dollars on the development of standardized tests, accountability systems, and programs of questionable value.
Crosby was reached at his home just outside Los Angeles, where among other subjects, he discussed exactly who should receive $100,000 a year and how those salaries would be financed.
Q: When did you first realize how poorly most teachers were treated, financially and otherwise?
A: Actually, I started thinking about it way back in 1982, when I was doing my credential coursework at Cal State. As I approached my fifth year of the program, I realized that I would have to start student teaching during the day and taking classes at night, which would have made it impossible for me to keep my job. I calculated everything out on paper and saw there was no way I could support myself. I wondered: What kind of profession is this? Why do they make things so difficult? I was making $18,000 a year as a word processor, five [thousand] more than L.A. Unified was offering at the time, and so I decided to wait a couple of years until the pay got higher before going into teaching.
Q: One hundred thousand dollars is going to strike some as a very high salary for a public school teacher.
A: Six figures is not absurd. For one thing, I’m not suggesting that all teachers should get that much—only the very best. And if you take your job seriously, you’re going to work very hard. Good teaching is really draining, physically and mentally. There’s no way around it: To get good people, you’re going to have to pay them a lot of money.
Q: But how do you tell who the top teachers are—the ones who will get six figures?
A: You set certain standards, like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has done. They’ve created a rubric that shows what good teaching is all about. I’ve never understood why teaching is supposed to be this big mystery—an art, something you just can’t put down on paper. It’s nonsense because good teachers can tell you what good teaching is. Within a few minutes, you can tell if something is really going on in that room or not.
The unions are at fault, too, for resisting merit pay. We need more unions like those in Cincinnati and Rochester [New York], which are saying, “Yes, you can tell who is really good and who”—as the current euphemism has it—“is still developing.”
Q: Is part of the problem that teachers themselves are wary of merit pay, of having excellence singled out?
A: Absolutely! There’s this culture among teachers that says, “You shall not rise above any others.” Perhaps there’s this fear that I, the teacher, will in a merit system be revealed as just not good enough. In my own school, for example, a new co-principal wanted to implement a system to give certificates to reward excellence. It’s now stalled because people started complaining about all those teachers who will never get recognized. So I guess everyone is now going to get a paper certificate from a printer.
Q: How are we going to pay for the $100,000 teacher?
A: In my book, I mention closing down Title I [the federal assistance program designed to help poor schools upgrade their educational standards]. When you have the education secretary, Rod Paige, saying it’s going to be a failure, then you have to wonder why we’re still funding this. There are a lot of abuses of Title I—a lot of strange stuff happens with that money. And remember, I’m talking about paying this $100,000 only to the top 5 percent of the faculty. If you were to double the salaries of these top people from 50 to 100K right now, it would cost about $8 billion, which is the Title I money, boom, right there.
Also, keep in mind that there is a lot of money in public education. There’s been an increase in funding over the last 10 years, even with the recent recession. Instead of all the categorical funding, we need to be making block grants directly to schools. Urban schools can then use that money to offer bonuses to attract top teachers.
Q: In your book, you seem almost as upset about poor working conditions for teachers as the low pay.
A: The working conditions are shameful. Look at what we teachers are given—no offices, no phones, no right to make photocopies, to get supplies. This issue has been around for years, and nothing is done. And we’re not talking about a lot of money to have enough paper, pens for grading. Yet the people controlling things just don’t see it as a priority. Interestingly enough, the people in the administrative offices don’t have a hard time finding these things because it’s a workplace for adults. Yet adults working with children get no respect or trust.
Recently, at my workplace, five reams of paper were found in a classroom. An administrator suggested that someone needed to go to each room and look for paper. But they make it so hard to get paper that people start thinking, “Oh, my God, I only need one ream of paper, but I’d better take more so I won’t run out.”
The bottom line is that teachers have been treated as inferior for so long that they’ve come to see each other that way. We’re afraid to stand up and say, “We’re important, and we can do more if you pay us more and get us better working conditions.”
Q: Do you have a new project in mind now that your book is finished?
A: Now I’m concentrating on what English teachers do—grading papers. [He laughs.] I have three classes of composition and am the adviser to the student newspaper, which keeps me motivated. I love working side by side with my students on something that they know is actually going to come out every month. If I ever stop with the newspaper, I’ll probably get out of teaching.
Q: Do you ever regret becoming a teacher?
A: No, but I’m frustrated that if I stay in teaching, there’s no position available for me—no master teacher position where I could teach a couple periods and then mentor young teachers. That would be nirvana for me.