Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Choosing the Lesser of Two Inequities

By Gary W. Ritter & Christopher J. Lucas — May 17, 2005 6 min read

Should teachers’ salaries be based on what subjects they teach, where they work, whom they instruct, and how well they foster learning? Or should school districts continue to rely on a uniform salary schedule, even though it perhaps means that a gifted, energetic teacher earns no more than a poor or indifferent instructor? As the federal No Child Left Behind Act has encouraged an increased focus on results, the rhetoric around this issue has intensified, with some now arguing that there are plenty of reasons why the old system should be jettisoned in favor of a market-driven, merit-pay alternative—the sooner, the better.

Is our symbolic stand against assigning differential economic value to teachers forcing us to provide an education of lower value to our poorest students?

The rhetorical arguments are now familiar to education observers. Under the rigid system commonly employed today, high school math or physics teachers, for instance, are paid no more than middle school gym teachers, though the latter abound while the former are scarce and enjoy plentiful alternative employment choices. Again, we pay the same salary to those who take on tough challenges in urban schools as we do to those who have it comparatively easier working with upper-middle-class kids in the suburbs. Worse yet, quite often we find the former are paid substantially less than the latter.

Alternatively, it is argued by some that a market-driven system would “value” some teachers at the expense of others and lead to further commercialization of schooling, which should instead serve a higher purpose. Indeed, the “right” policy option does not appear obvious here, as this is one of the tricky values-based dilemmas confronting education policymakers. It is not an empirical question ... entirely. But despite the heated rhetoric and the underlying philosophical differences surrounding this issue, we argue that data can be brought to bear to guide policymakers in their decisionmaking.

The basic policy question is whether the supposed equality inherent in a uniform salary schedule for teachers necessarily spells inequality of opportunity from the perspective of classroom students. Four strands of empirical research, when brought together, support the argument that our current lock-step system does in fact lead to inequality of opportunity for students throughout the system.

The research-based argument begins with a fundamental, intuitively consistent finding: Teacher quality makes a difference. Recent reviews by Jennifer King Rice, at the University of Maryland, and Michael Allen, at the Education Commission of the States, that examine the growing literature on teacher quality highlight the emerging consensus that individual teachers can and do affect student learning in discernible, often profound ways.

Second, for some students, in certain subjects, American schools are performing at unacceptably poor levels. The data are clear, by practically any assessment (the Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences Study, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT and ACT, and so on), that problematic achievement gaps persist, and that they derive most markedly from students’ attending poor rural schools or impoverished inner-city schools. Typically, such students in the aggregate do less well than their more advantaged peers elsewhere on nearly any measure of educational achievement or attainment. Moreover, available data indicate that with respect to subjects such as math and science, all U.S. students (and especially disadvantaged children) register relatively low achievement levels.

Third, evidence is accumulating to indicate that in math and science, the lowest-achieving students are taught at a higher rate by teachers who by any criterion or measure are no more than marginally qualified to do so. The University of Pennsylvania sociologist Richard Ingersoll, among others, has done an extensive investigation of out-of-field teaching. He finds that many schools that lack access to a supply of qualified teachers are obliged to staff their classrooms with personnel untrained in the subject matter they are assigned to teach. Perhaps not surprisingly, the incidence of out-of-field teaching is neither randomly nor uniformly distributed across schools or districts. Locales where underqualified teachers are most common include lower-quality rural schools and inner-city schools that serve large numbers of minority students.

Fourth, differences in educational quality can and do contribute favorably or adversely to the long-term life prospects of affected students. Practically no one nowadays disputes the claim that educational achievement or attainment is important for a student’s life chances. Hence, disparities in schooling are likely to lead to—and have historically been associated with—disparities in life outcomes.

A review of these four strands of the research literature reminds us that our schools may not be serving our poorest students well, and may not be effectively delivering instruction in math and science. The research is also clear that teacher quality plays a critical role in how well the schools perform. Further, there is a consensus that teachers working with these students and in these subject areas are generally less-qualified than their peers. Given the great importance of educational outcomes with respect to future outcomes for students, this is a dangerous confluence.

Against this backdrop, it is worth noting as a matter of straightforward economic theory that data on the relative pay for various occupations indicate quite clearly that the “opportunity cost” of choosing to teach math or science is greater than the opportunity cost of choosing to teach history or English literature. That is, on average, individuals trained in science or math will enjoy higher wage prospects in the labor market than those trained in other subjects. Hence, all other factors being equal, higher wages will be needed to attract trained individuals in these areas to teaching.

We need to pay more to teachers who are trained in math and science and those who would be willing to teach our underperforming students, assuming the appropriate incentives were in place.

Economic theory also analyzes compensating differentials in relation to wages. In specific cases, a prospective teacher might value the job environment as part of a total compensation package and therefore would accept lower wages for better working conditions. Conversely, a teacher might demand a compensating wage differential as a condition for working in less-favorable conditions, such as an unsafe school with high student turnover and a reputation for chronically low academic achievement.

Given the reported shortage of high-quality teachers in math and science and in schools serving our poorest students, it seems reasonable to consider economic incentives to redress the situation. We need to pay more to teachers who are trained in math and science and those who would be willing to teach our underperforming students, assuming the appropriate incentives were in place. Only by paying them more could we hope to enjoy the same instructional excellence exhibited, for example, by teachers of English literature in affluent suburban schools.

Those who oppose eliminating a uniform pay scale will immediately counter that “valuing” the math teacher means “devaluing” the English teacher. Nothing could be further from the truth. The labor market has already ascribed differential economic values (not “human” values) to teachers of one subject as opposed to another. We can continue to “take the high road” and refuse to allow the market to assign worth to math teachers and English teachers, protesting that we value both equally. But in doing so, the likelihood is that the undersupply of qualified teachers in certain subjects will persist indefinitely. This forces us to ask: Is our symbolic stand against assigning differential economic value to teachers forcing us to provide an education of lower value to our poorest students?

We think so. In effect, by paying these teachers equally, we are choosing to “devalue” our traditionally underserved students in poor and minority areas.

If this is true, we must then ask: Which inequity is the less desirable—one whereby teachers will receive differential pay based, for example, on their disciplines of expertise, or one by which pupils have less effective teaching because they come from poorer backgrounds or more economically disadvantaged areas? Given that the broad mission of our schools is to serve students, we think that answer—and thus the only socially just policy option—is obvious.

Our schoolchildren need and deserve something better.

Gary W. Ritter is an associate professor in education and public policy at the University of Arkansas, in Fayetteville, Ark., where Christopher J. Lucas is a professor in educational foundations. Both are faculty members in the university’s public-policy Ph.D. program.

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