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The ‘Quality Counts’ Message on Teacher Pay

By Michele McNeil — January 09, 2008 2 min read
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Boosting teacher pay is a hot education reform topic on the presidential campaign trail, especially for Democrats. Barack Obama even talked about it last night during his second-place-finish speech in the New Hampshire primary, saying, “We [need to] stop talking about how great teachers are and start rewarding them for their greatness.”

It’s a popular message with unions, whose members are a key voting bloc. Teacher pay is relatively easy for voters to understand in short sound bites. Plus, many voters find it hard to argue with the need to pay teachers more money for the vital, and difficult, public service job they perform.

But if the end game is, indeed, to recruit and retain new teachers, then EdWeek‘s new state-by-state “Quality Counts 2008" report suggests the solution is far more complicated than anything that can fit in a 15-second sound bite.

And this means the teacher-pay proposals of the candidates merit more scrutiny. For the most part, this scrutiny is limited to Democrats, who are the only ones seriously talking about teacher pay issues.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s plan to make the average starting salary for teachers in America $40,000 could be seen as overly simplistic. And that’s because, according to Quality Counts, teacher pay varies widely by state and is a bigger issue in some parts of the country than others. Montana and Rhode Island, for example, have median teacher salaries that are above those for comparable jobs. But teachers in North Carolina and Missouri make far less than peers in similar jobs. So the solutions may be different for different states.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, of New York, has been rather vague on teacher pay issues, except to make it perfectly clear she thinks merit pay for teachers is “demeaning.” Though she may not like merit pay, it is clear, from what the Quality Counts researchers found, that good teachers now have little hope of making big salary gains, which could hurt efforts to retain the best educators.

And speaking of money, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ plan calls for giving teachers $15,000 bonuses for teaching in high-poverty schools. But money may not be enough, as explained in the Quality Counts story, “Working Conditions Trump Pay.” Teachers also want good building leadership, support from their colleagues and bosses, and classroom resources.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has one of the most comprehensive plans, which touches on everything from supporting mentoring programs and common planning time to recruiting teacher-candidates for high-needs schools. But even he overlooks a common problem for states: data quality. Quality Counts revealed that only 20 states have, and can verify, their ability to track the number of highly qualified teachers overall, and the number in high-poverty schools.

Without good data collection, it will be hard to gauge the effectiveness of any new teacher programs. But try getting the words “data quality” or “data collection” in a voter-friendly, 15-second sound bite.

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