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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

From The Same Thing: Paying Some Teachers More Than Others Isn’t a Radical Notion

By Rick Hess — December 06, 2010 3 min read
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Note: Over the next few weeks, I’ll occasionally be flagging nuggets from my new book, The Same Thing Over and Over, just out from Harvard University Press. For more, check out the book on Amazon.

Teacher unions insist that it would be something akin to the end of Western Civilization should we venture to pay history teachers more than gym teachers, or math and science teachers more than history teachers. As Bob Chase, then-president of the NEA, said a few years back in USA Today, “Please don’t distract us with ill-considered half measures, such as paying math and science teachers more than other teachers. We might as well hang a sign in the teachers’ room saying: In this school, if you don’t teach math or science, your work is literally ‘less valuable.’ This is insulting--and wrong.”

Paying individuals unequally can be unfair and divisive. A century ago, for instance, high school teachers were paid more than elementary teachers simply because secondary teachers were more likely to be male. But that’s not what we’re dealing with today. Across the U.S. and Western Europe, OECD reports that principals find it about five times as difficult to find a math teacher as a social studies teacher (let me tell you, as a former social studies teacher, this brings me no joy). Paying more for math teachers--especially for good ones--isn’t a moral statement, it’s merely an acknowledgement of a little thing we call supply and demand.

Indeed, colleges have long paid business school and medical school professors a lot more than arts and science faculty--not because they’re better people, but because they’re responding to prevailing wages and market competition. Science faculty earn more than anthropologists and literature profs; again, for the simple reason that a bench scientist can earn more in the open market than can a Proust scholar.

Why such differentiation is deemed radical in K-12 schooling is beyond me--especially if we note that there is precedent for doing so as far back as the dawn of Western Civilization. In fact, as I note in The Same Thing, the ancient Romans and Greeks thought it perfectly unexceptional that some teachers would be paid more than others.

In the Greek city-state of Teos, for example, elementary teachers were paid 600 drachmas for the first grade, 550 for the second, and 500 for the third. Equally noteworthy is that the Greeks also paid instructors differentially depending on the subject taught. Teosian archery and javelin teachers were the lowest-paid teachers, at 250 drachmas per year; literature teachers earned 500 to 600 drachmas; and music teachers were the highest-paid teachers, at 700 drachmas.

Clearly, the Greeks had few qualms about the effects of basing pay on the perceived difficulty and importance of the subject in question. In Athens, meanwhile, both the Sophists and the Philosophes charged tuition as they saw fit, with students then choosing who to study with in the same manner that families select private schools today.

Allowing students to determine whether to pay for select lectures a la carte or to buy education in bulk permitted them to customize learning to their circumstances and interests. Eventually, the Roman Emperor Gratian established a salary schedule throughout the empire in the fourth century CE, with pay routinely differentiated based on judgments regarding the import of various instructional roles. In the city of Treves, pay reflected the level of students taught, with Sophists who taught at the “professor” level receiving an annona (an assortment of foodstuffs that functioned as salary) 50 percent greater than that of Latin grammarians or secondary teachers.

The notion that some teachers should be paid more than others is certainly not new, and it’s puzzling-- in a nation that casually accepts paying quarterbacks more than their blockers-- why anyone should think it radical.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.