Early Childhood Opinion

Pay Teachers More? Of Course We Should

By Dave Powell — August 26, 2016 7 min read
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There is an old argument about teaching and teacher pay making the rounds, masquerading as a powerful new insight. The argument is that improving the working conditions of teachers is more important than raising teacher pay. Or, to put it another way: “Just Paying Teachers More Won’t Stop Them From Quitting.”

If you read the article that follows that headline above, what you find are several anecdotal stories about people who got out of teaching because they just couldn’t take it anymore. One quit because she decided, as she put it, that “at a certain point you kind of have to pay for your own sanity,” and added: “I don’t think anybody told me I was going to cry under my desk.” (Can teacher education programs do anything right?!) Another left for a desk job in human resources, where he made more money (interesting point, that) and was relieved to find that “nobody cussed at me, nobody choked me, I never went home crying.”

Another teacher—who also, it should be noted, entered the profession through an “alternative” pathway like teacher number two; the first teacher’s entry point wasn’t mentioned—left teaching to become a rapper. He added that he couldn’t stand his boss, a pretty common feeling in just about every profession. A fourth teacher had a lot of fun being a juror so he decided to become a lawyer. A fifth teacher gets right at the favorite point every opponent of higher pay loves to hear: she believes teachers are born, not made; that she was paid more than enough money to do something she loved; and that the best thing that could happen to schools would be if “government could find its way out of the classroom so it could go back to being about people who understand how to educate.” She’s lucky enough now to work with her husband, who “owns a medical group"—teaching without all the strings attached.

I don’t want to diminish the experiences of any of these teachers. Yes, you should stay sane if you can, and sometimes that means getting a new job. No, you should not tolerate working in a place where you might be cussed at or choked or where you want to crawl up under your desk and cry. Yes, you should follow your “passion,” whatever it may be: if being a musician or practicing law turns out to be your thing, and teaching turns out not to be, well, then, do us all a favor and go do your thing.

What I’m struggling to understand, though, is how it is exactly that these stories prove that we shouldn’t improve the pay of the millions of teachers who are perfectly sane, aren’t concerned about being cussed at or choked, and haven’t found new life in the entertainment industry or working in the family business. So we have a few horror stories from teachers (gathered, it should be noted, from interviews with no “more than a half dozen former teachers,” at least some of whom were “tracked down” on Twitter) about why they left. A half dozen is six. There are more than 3 million teachers in America today.

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence: it seems convincing, but actually it turns the process we should use to make informed decisions upside down. Anecdotes are easy to stitch together to support a theory you have about how things ought to be done; they are good at helping you confirm what you already believe. But no one’s experience speaks perfectly for everyone else’s, so if you read an argument that depends on anecdotal evidence you probably aren’t getting anything close to the whole story. In fact, the anecdotes may obscure what’s actually happening.

And what is happening? The argument being made in this Atlantic piece, and elsewhere, essentially boils down to this: teacher turnover (which, incidentally, is not the same thing as a teacher shortage) is a huge problem, and if we think just paying teachers more money will stop them from fleeing the profession we’re wrong. The conditions of teaching are, in fact, so bad that no amount of money could possibly stop the flood of teachers leaving. Want proof? Here are the stories of five people to confirm it.

There are statistics too. A popular one cited in this story comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, which found that around 259,000 teachers left teaching after the 2011-12 school year, about 28,000 of whom had fewer than four years of teaching experience. That seems like a lot of teachers, but actually it’s not: in the end, only about 8% left when the school year concluded. In fact, NCES found that 84% of all teachers returned in 2012-13 to the exact same position they had the year before, while about 8% moved to another teaching position. That means fully 92% of all teachers came back for the next school year.

Those are not outrageous numbers. If you believe this data compiled by a consulting firm called CompData, the employee turnover rate for all industries in 2013 was 15%. At 8%, teaching, at least in 2011-12, had a lower rate of turnover than almost every other major industry in America. Anyone expecting 0% turnover in teaching needs to come back to reality.

So what does this mean? Well, for starters, it probably means that we should be less concerned about how many people leave teaching and more concerned about how many people stay in—and whether they’re any good at what they do. But that’s a different story. The argument being made here is that we shouldn’t bother improving teacher salaries because teaching is such terrible work that it won’t keep anybody from quitting anyway. We should “fix” teaching first, then worry about what we pay teachers.

What I want to know is: in what world would we be able to improve the status of teachers without improving their pay? What reason do we have to believe that we can pay teachers rock bottom salaries but expect politicians and “reformers” to take them and their work seriously? What makes us think that status and compensation can somehow be separated in this society? Better compensation brings higher status. For better or worse it commands respect in our world.

And let’s be clear: teachers are workers just like everybody else. They have student loans and mortgages and car payments and children of their own to send to college. The idea that they should settle for lower pay just because they like what they do is ridiculous. I’ll bet there are a few bankers who derive a lot of pleasure from their work. Are we asking any of them to do it for less money just because they like it?

But, wait, there’s more. If you do a deeper dive into the NCES findings you notice some interesting trends. For example, NCES found that among the 7% of teachers with 1-3 years of experience who left teaching only 51% “reported that the manageability of their work load was better in their current position than in teaching,” and only 53% reported better “general work conditions” in their new jobs. I say “only” because I think we’d expect those numbers to be a lot higher if teaching was as terrible as it’s made out to be. The data clearly suggests that only half of the 7% of teachers who left teaching after the 2011-12 school year found that the grass was greener on the other side. In other words: work sucks, especially when you’re the new guy. If you’re lucky enough to find a job with supportive colleagues and appropriate mentoring and if you have the skills to manage what you’re being expected to do, then work can be okay. But this data, at least, implies that people (people who chose to first become teachers, in any case) in the first three years of a new job are as likely as not to find that it is no better or worse than teaching was. That’s not an insignificant finding, especially if you want to make the claim that paying people more money won’t encourage them to stay in teaching.

The bottom line is that this claim, as far as I can tell, is hogwash. In the first place, maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about 8% turnover; second, it seems likely, based on what we know (anecdotal evidence collected on Twitter notwithstanding), that many teachers who leave actually would have stayed if they were paid more money. If half of all teachers who left teaching said the work was no better someplace else—and if more people knew that—I’m betting even more teachers would think twice about leaving. Especially if their compensation packages were more competitive.

Look: if you’re a teacher almost every job you qualify for outside of teaching pays more. That’s just reality, and it’s especially true if you are a new teacher. I don’t think anyone except wishful-thinking ideological hacks would argue with that. As for me, I’m pretty convinced that paying teachers more would keep many of them who do quit from quitting, if that’s what we’re concerned about. But I don’t even think that’s why we should do it. We should do it because we care about the future of the country and the lives our children will lead. We should do it because no one—let alone someone with a college degree—should have to cobble together two or three jobs to make ends meet. We should do it because the best way to improve the professional status of teachers is to treat them like professionals, and that begins with recognizing their work as professional work and compensating them accordingly. We should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.