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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

Teacher Pay

By Michael Bromley — August 03, 2011 3 min read
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Note: Michael Bromley, a teacher in Washington, DC, is guest-posting this week.

My colleagues groan when I say it, and then tell me to shut up: teachers are over-paid. Truly, we are. To argue that teachers are underpaid defies logic and means nothing: based on what? Oh, teachers are socially important, so they should be well-paid. Okay, measure that importance for me, will ya? Let’s see, if I fail five fewer kids this year will you give me a raise? That won’t work. What if I passed ‘em all? Hmm. As with all attempts to quantify, measure, and manage education, there is no true, consistent, or constant baseline from which to measure teacher value. Even if we do attach pay to performance, from what baseline do we start and why?

Okay, I’m not a career teacher, and having built a business from scratch, I know what it’s like to not know what next month’s pay is going to look like. Most of my colleagues have studied and done nothing but teaching. It’s all they know. Their only thought on teacher pay is that it’s never enough. (My advice to young teachers is never to marry another teacher: go for investment bankers, physicians, lawyers, you know, people who actually work for a living.) The other problem is that, having fallen into this teaching thing by accident, I just feel that I’m lucky to be here. Get paid to do this? Sweet.

Teacher pay is an entirely artificial concept unrelated to anything but union contracts and reference tables on the number of years spent teaching. Other than, say, relating it to the hourly scale for babysitting, teaching has no inherent market value. Sure, studies show the hours teachers put in, the value of good educators on student lives, and the horror show of failed school systems. But no one has figured out--or wants to figure out--a good way to measure teacher pay.

How about this: let’s correlate teacher pay to economic function directly. It’d require banning public schooling, but the downside is that all schools and all teachers would have to compete for their jobs--and for paying clients. If I were running a school, I’d line up my teaching staff, introduce them to the clients, and see who wins. We could charge our clients per teacher, thus letting them choose the type, quality, or experience they want and according to an actual value: want Mr. Bromley, that’ll cost ya an extra five hundred bucks. Too much? Okay, you got Ms. Jones for half off. Not a great learning experience, but she gives away grades so long as you don’t throw too many paper balls.

Imagine the results--it’d be phenomenal: parents and students would choose the type of education they want, and pricing would set itself accordingly. (Supposedly we do this for college, paying those serious dollars for the “better” schools. Ouch. I’m gonna think this one over real carefully as I drop my daughter off at that little liberal arts college in Boston this Fall.) Finally, we’d have a real connection between service and price, and teacher pay would be comparable, measurable, and performance-based. Dream on.

Okay, how about this idea: fire half the teachers and double the salary of the remainders. Let ‘em fight it out, I don’t care how. In the gym? Over the coffee or copy machines? Put it to a student vote? Would any of us really be unwilling to take double the workload but for double the pay? (I’d hold out for a longer summer vacation, back to the good old days of Memorial Weekend to Labor Day...) If so, then why do we put up with the lower-performing half? If not, then let’s just stop complaining about class size, about student performance, and all the rest of the intangibles and unmeasurables that make education so bloody difficult to manage.

--Michael Bromley

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.