Education Opinion

Is Our Current Teacher Compensation System Up to the Challenges of the Future?

By Patrick Ledesma — August 23, 2011 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week, Steve Owens guest blogged A Tale of Two Cities: Fear and Hope in Education Policy and Unions. This week, he is cross posting an excerpt from first blog article Rethinking Teacher Compensation: Ethics Equals Good Policy- Part I: Time Flows Only One Direction on his new blog Education Worker.

In addition to Steve’s role as a member of the Vermont National Education Association (VT-NEA) and a colleague 2010 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow Ambassador with the US Department of Education, we, along with Nancy Flanagan and Jenay Leach were part of a panel presentation “Teachers Affecting Education Policy” at the 2011 National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards Conference last month.

Steve brings an insightful view of education policy issues from the union perspective, often with a powerful understanding of history to explain how we got to where we are today.

I often take a different perspective, emphasizing the school based and practioner level. The challenge from the practioner point of view is that we expect policies to give us the tools we need to be effective at the school level so that we can solve problems in our local context.

Having a variety of perspectives is helpful to understanding education policy issues and the real impact on schools.

Teacher Compensation Affects Our Ability to Staff High Need Subjects

The issue of teacher compensation is complex and divisive. When we consider the shortages of teachers in high need areas such as math, science, and special education (among many others), we need to re-examine our current teacher compensation structure and ask if we have the policies, flexibility, and tools we need to attract the quality and type of teachers we need for our diverse student population.

Detractors of a differential compensation system would point to the importance of teaching conditions and other non-compensation factors that attract and retain teachers. I would agree with them, but I would also challenge those detractors to examine the real difficulties created in schools when facing shortages of certain credentials of teachers, when compared to the over-abundance of other types of certifications.

For example, if your school advertised for a mathematics general education or special education position, how many applicants like Ms. M, who is dually certified in both areas, will you get? Now, what if you advertised for other positions such as a History or English teacher? There are an abundance of those applicants. (Please note: I was a History major in college and a former high school English Literature teacher, so I prefer those subjects to mathematics and I’m just trying to make a point using specific examples.) Yet, when I learned over the summer of another young highly talented high school math teacher who is leaving the profession for a graduate degree to pursue an engineering career and a higher salary, it is clear, that from a practical and realistic perspective, that our old teacher compensation system is not working to increase the number of available applicants in certain high shortage areas.)

Those are the questions and complexities that practioners face at a practical level. Ultimately, we will see these issues differently based on our respective roles in schools.
Yet, education issues are bigger than our classroom perspective, so the insightful observations and lessons from Steve’s new blog “Education Worker” will be a fascinating read.

Will a historical perspective give us insights into solving today’s issues on teacher compensation? Let’s find out!

Here is an excerpt from his first post.

Rethinking Teacher Compensation: Ethics Equals Good Policy is a three part series. I will be posting each day as follows:

Monday: Part I. Time Flows Only One Direction
Tuesday: Part II. A Brief Critique of Neo-Liberal Compensation Reform
Wednesday: Part III. Synthesis and Solutions

Part I. Time Flows Only One Direction

The single salary schedule is the most common system for organizing the compensation of teachers. It rewards for two things: longevity and education. A teacher receives a raise for each year of service (step increases) and a raise for achieving certain educational benchmarks, such as graduate credits and Masters degrees (column increases.) It emerged during the Progressive era, some 94 years ago, to solve certain problems in education. It promoted equity between teachers of different races and genders. It rationalized compensation, and was used to take favoritism out of the equation.

In order to work the single salary schedule had to be tied to two other mechanisms: tenure and seniority. Tenure is due process, the idea that civil servants should only be terminated for just cause, in other words for issues related to performance. Teachers gain tenure when they attain the right to due process, usually after certain number of years and satisfactory evaluations. Prior to attaining tenure, teachers are “at will employees;" they can be terminated for any reason or for no reason. Seniority is “last in, first out” which prevents veteran teachers from being terminated in favor of younger, cheaper workers. Without tenure and seniority, the single salary schedule is functionally meaningless.

For the rest of Steve’s article, click here.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom 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.