High-Tech Field Luring Teachers From Education

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High school teacher Mike Truitt made a job change 18 months ago that doubled his salary and halved his workweek. His new employer: Bill Gates.

Mr. Truitt, who is 30, spent four years teaching history and English before going to work for the Microsoft Corp., the world's leading software company, based in Redmond, Wash. In his new job, he's still a teacher of sorts, answering customers' questions about software over the telephone.

Equally important, he and his wife have been able to buy a house—a middle-class rite of passage that Mr. Truitt says would have been impossible on his $24,000 annual teaching salary. "I was looking at trying to start a family and support a family," he said recently. After briefly considering going into school administration, "it was time to cut my losses."

Unfortunately for districts trying to recruit teachers, Mr. Truitt's decision is becoming more common as teaching loses out to the booming high-tech industry. In some regions of the country, teachers are leaving for better-paying, less stressful jobs in the private sector. In others, such as the Boston area, districts are finding they can't compete in the first place for people with backgrounds in mathematics, science, and computers.

Money Talks

Money is a primary reason. The national average salary for beginning teachers in 1997-98 was $25,735, according to a survey released last year by the American Federation of Teachers. In contrast, new college graduates received offers averaging $40,920 in computer science, $42,862 in engineering, and $40,523 in math or statistics.

By the time teachers have gained experience, the salary gap with other fields is even wider, the survey found. While the average teacher salary was $39,347 in 1997-98, computer-systems analysts earned $63,072, and engineers were paid $64,489 a year.

Some districts have begun paying one-time signing bonuses to hard-to-recruit teachers. District officials in Boston are contemplating going even further in upcoming contract negotiations by proposing to hire new math and science teachers for salaries higher than the union contract now allows.

Breaking the 50-year tradition of paying all teachers on a single salary schedule, however, isn't likely to be easy. Teachers have traditionally viewed attempts to differentiate their pay as statements of the relative worth of various teaching specialties—setting off competition and fears of favoritism.

"It's time to start looking at pay differently, based on the market," argued Michael Contompasis, the chief operating officer of the Boston public schools. "We can't have everybody at similar pay levels any more, it seems to me."

A national commission, chaired by former U.S. Sen. John Glenn, is expected to make recommendations next fall on improving the quality of math and science teaching. Whether the commission will address the sticky issue of salaries is unclear.

"You hear proposals to pay high school math teachers more," said Dennis Van Roekel, the secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association and a high school math teacher who serves on the commission. "But the truth is, every elementary teacher is a math teacher."

In fact, U.S. Department of Education data show that 61 percent of all teachers have some responsibility for teaching math or science during the school day.

Lack of Advancement

Turnover rates among math and science teachers are somewhat higher than for teachers in other fields, according to a paper prepared for the commission by Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia in Athens. Teaching as a whole had a turnover rate of 14.3 percent in 1994-95, compared with 16 percent for math and science teachers, a statistically insignificant difference.

More significantly, teachers in those subject areas were more likely to say that dissatisfaction with their jobs had prompted them to depart—a reason given by 40 percent of the math and science teachers who left their jobs, compared with 29 percent of all teachers.

"There is such a huge salary gap," Mr. Ingersoll said, "that one might almost expect more turnover among math and science teachers than there is."

For teachers who work in high-tech areas, such as Mr. Truitt, the lure of private industry can be difficult to resist.

Mike Reilly's brother—who works for one of the many technology companies in Northern Virginia, a booming area in suburban Washington—pointed out that he could earn far more in private industry than teaching math at nearby Annandale High School.

So Mr. Reilly, 34, parlayed his hobby of programming computers into a job at American Management Systems in Fairfax, Va., where he expects to double his $35,000 teaching salary by next year.

Along with being able to take bathroom breaks and talk to colleagues whenever he wishes, Mr. Reilly relishes the chance to learn on the job.

"I didn't see that opportunity to advance and develop in the school ranks, unless you do it on your own," he said. Still, he added, "I would go back if the salary was the same."

In Washington state, where teachers' low pay prompted a series of walkouts last spring, the contrast between salaries in education and technology fields is particularly glaring. But teachers who have made the switch to private industry say other benefits to their jobs also outweigh the rewards of teaching.

Brad Stauffer, 26, felt stymied in the Lake Washington, Wash., district, where he taught 3rd and 4th grades. Mr. Stauffer had trained other teachers in technology and designed an online curriculum for using various software programs. But he left to work for Reality Based Learning, a startup company in Redmond, when he didn't get the position he wanted as the 24,000-student district's technology coordinator, partly because of a lack of experience.

"Teaching is not results-based," he said. "It doesn't matter how much time I put in—I couldn't move anywhere, laterally or forward.'' But outside education, "The people running the Internet are the blue-haired and pierced-nose 22-year-olds."

The increased requirements heaped on teachers by legislators eager to raise student achievement contributed to Heidi Hamilton's decision to quit teaching. Ms. Hamilton, 25, who taught junior high math and science in the 26,000-student Kent, Wash., district, now works in the technology-support department of a Bellevue software firm called IntegraTRAK.

Ms. Hamilton now earns "well over" the $24,000 she brought home as a teacher. And she doesn't have to contend with requirements to create individual reading plans for students—a mandate that frustrated her as a math teacher.

As a teacher, she said, "I knew I wouldn't have a Lexus or be vacationing in Vail every year. But I did think I would be able to live a single life and be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and I couldn't do it."

Off the Charts?

In Boston, where competition for college graduates with math, computer, or science skills is fierce, the public schools are losing out. The 63,000-student system has turned to its own high school students to certify them as computer-network engineers, for example.

Mr. Contompasis, the chief operating officer of the Boston schools, believes creative measures are necessary. "We can't find a certified math or science person right now," he said. "We've got to get people who know the subject matter and are capable of teaching to levels of rigor far beyond what has historically been the case."

The Boston Teachers Union contract already permits the district to bring in teachers in shortage areas at the top of the scale—$55,931 a year rather than the $36,996 starting salary. But both Edward Doherty, the president of the union, and Mr. Contompasis said the 15-year-old provision hasn't been used much.

But an expected wave of teacher retirements will increase the need for qualified teachers, Mr. Contompasis noted. In upcoming talks for a contract to replace the agreement that expires in August, he hopes to be able to negotiate a salary above the top teacher pay that would be more competitive with private industry.

"I'm interested in going beyond the steps so we would be able to use it as a recruiting tool," he said.

Measuring Value

Whether such a proposal would fly with the teachers' union is questionable.

"We would have some difficulty with that," Mr. Doherty said of paying people over and above the negotiated salary schedule.

"That would not be popular with a lot of teachers. Your English and social studies and fine arts teachers would argue that their talents are just as valuable."

Vol. 19, Issue 19, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: January 19, 2000, as High-Tech Field Luring Teachers From Education
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Review the findings from the AFT's Survey and Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 1997.
  • Read "Dropping Out," about the growing number of Texas teachers who are abandoning the education field in favor of technology-related jobs in the private sector, from The Austin Chronicle.
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