Teaching Profession Opinion

Duncan Says Teachers Should Earn $60K-$150K...Via Merit Pay

By Justin Baeder — August 02, 2011 2 min read
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US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made headlines today by suggesting that teachers should earn between $60,000 and $150,000 per year, in an address to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards last week. His comments on overall salary were what drew the most immediate attention on Twitter, but a closer look reveals that he’s beating the usual drums: Merit pay and the end of seniority.

In the speech, he mentioned the “top-third” recruitment strategy used by top-performing nations such as Finland:

We have an amazing chance to modernize the teaching profession and expand the talent pool. But it will require dramatic changes in the way we recruit, train, support, evaluate and compensate teachers. And there are important lessons from abroad. In nearly every leading country, a large majority of teachers come from the top third of college graduates. That must be our goal as well. The countries that are beating us in the classroom today will beat us in the workplace tomorrow—so this is a matter of economic security and national security. To win the future, we must mirror these high-performing countries and recruit more teachers from the top third. Many bright and committed young people are attracted to teaching, but surveys show they are reluctant to enter the field for the long-haul. They see it as low-paying and low-prestige.They want excellence to be rewarded and meaningful feedback provided. They want a job that requires top-flight credentials and a challenging work schedule. They want autonomy, the time and space to be creative, and they are willing to be held accountable. But they don't look at teaching the way they look at law, medicine or engineering. It requires too many sacrifices that other professions don't have to make.

Now, I’m not sure that recruiting brighter teachers is exactly the national security panacea Duncan implies, but I can’t say I disagree with the general idea of paying more or raising the status of the profession. But if we examine Duncan’s words closely, he stops short of actually calling for an increase in teacher pay:

Last year, McKinsey did a study comparing the U.S. to other countries and recommending -- among other things -- that we change the economics of the profession, pointing out that entry-level salary in the high 30's and an average ceiling in the high 60's will never attract and retain the top talent. We must think radically differently. We should also be asking how the teaching profession might change if salaries started at $60,000 and rose to $150,000. We must ask and answer hard questions on topics that have been off limits in the past like staffing practices and school organization, benefits packages and job security—because the answers may give us more realistic ways to afford these new professional conditions. If teachers are to be treated and compensated as the true professionals they are, the profession will need to shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation to rewarding effectiveness and performance.

There it is. Duncan isn’t actually asking the nation to pony up and pay its teachers more just yet; he’s asking teachers to give up tenure, accept pay-for-performance, and tolerate cuts to their benefits. Given the chance to earn $150,000, I’d probably take that bargain, but I’d like to see the money on the table first, and right now, it’s not. In this light, Duncan’s call for change is more than a little disingenuous.

He continues:

Today, too many schools and districts evaluate, recognize, and compensate teachers without respect to their impact on student learning. This is an assembly-line model of pay, based on seniority and educational credentials. This is not how professionals are compensated in this age of innovation. Top undergraduates want to know that their talent and hard work will be rewarded.

This is some fine speechwriting: Duncan is right that few professionals in other fields are compensated based strictly on seniority, but he’s wrong to imply (yet clever not to explicitly state) that professionals in most fields are paid for their performance, at least as measured quantitatively. Other than sales, I don’t know of any fields that are strictly pay-for-performance, and education isn’t similar enough to sales to justify a similar pay structure.

What he could have suggested, but didn’t, is to allow principals far more discretion in setting individual teachers’ salaries, based on judgments of their performance—that’s much more aligned with how comparable professions dole out compensation. I’m not sure that would be a drastic improvement, but it would bring about the “modernization” Duncan seems to be looking for.

He concludes his speech by urging NBCTs to help their colleagues get on the compensation-reform bus:

Your colleagues in the classroom trust you. They will take your lead and they will follow you. Appeal to their highest ideals. Bring their voice into the conversation, and help them see that by taking full responsibility for their profession, they can remake it in their own eyes—and in the eyes of our nation.

Most educators I know do take full responsibility for their profession, but aren’t ready to trust Duncan and the corporate reformers who promise higher pay and higher status, but only if teachers first make concessions and go along with ill-conceived merit pay schemes.

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