The task of recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers has long been a daunting challenge. Teacher attrition costs up to $2.2 billion annually, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Although the shortage is more acute in some fields than in others, it has reached epic proportions. Whether the problem can be overcome by increasing salaries is doubtful (“What If America’s Teachers Made More Money?” The Atlantic, Feb. 18).
It’s important to bear in mind that there are 3.2 million teachers in 98,000 public schools in the country. That makes it hard to generalize about what constitutes an adequate salary. The cost of living in San Francisco, for example, is far higher than that in Montgomery. Nevertheless, there are those who argue that public-school teachers are not underpaid. They say that on average public-school teachers receive total compensation that is roughly 50 percent higher than what they would receive in private-sector employment (“Critical Issues in Assessing Teacher Compensation,” The Heritage Foundation, Jan. 10, 2012).
If that were true, then recruiting and retaining the best teachers would cease to be an issue. But it is. For example, last year there were nearly 43,000 vacancies in California, even though starting salaries ranged from $40,000 to $44,000, depending on the district. I believe the shortage will remain as long as outsiders fail to understand what motivates teachers. The same incentives that shape behavior in other fields will not necessarily work in teaching. Teachers are more interested in the satisfaction they receive instructing their students in their areas of expertise than in higher salaries. For example, when “combat pay” has been offered to teachers willing to teach in inner-city schools, there have been few takers. Reformers say that’s because the premium was paltry. But I maintain that even if it were doubled, it would fail to achieve its goal. Teachers in these schools are forced to attend to a host of issues in their students before being able to teach their lessons.
What will attract the best and the brightest to make teaching a career are small classes, ample supplies, sufficient aides, and supportive administrators. Higher salaries alone are not enough. Tying pay to performance will only exacerbate the problem, despite what reformers claim. I urge them to teach in an inner-city public school for a month. Only then will I consider their recommendations worthy of serious consideration.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.