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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Profession Opinion

What Does It Mean to ‘Overspend’ on Teacher Salaries?

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 25, 2022 3 min read
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Earlier this summer, an article made the rounds on social media accusing a school district of “overspending” on teacher salaries.

Cara Jackson, a past contributor to this blog, shared an informative “thread” on Twitter about the topic, and I asked her if she would be open to turning it into a guest post.

She agreed, and here it is:

Cara Jackson is a senior associate at Abt Associates, where she works on systematic reviews of research evidence and conducts program evaluations:

Last month, I came across an article about “rampant overspending on teacher salaries” in the Rochester City school district. It’s framed as a story that’s literally about how much we pay individual teachers. I questioned that framing in part because teacher and administrator salaries seem to have been conflated. Another reason the framing seemed questionable is that Rochester’s median teacher salary is $67,552, which is just slightly higher than the average public school teacher salary in the United States and substantially lower than the average for New York state, where Rochester is located.

As it turns out, a local paper had reported back in 2019 that the school district said it may have significantly overspent its 2018-19 budget on self-insured health care and special education. With regard to special education, the district appears to have overcompensated for previous shortages by hiring many more special education teachers.

The former chief financial officer resigned and settled U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charges against him. Clearly, the district suffered from fiscal mismanagement. Yet the story was framed as though the district was paying teachers too much, while the actual issue may have been hiring more teachers than needed.

But I was left wondering, what would it mean to “overspend” on teacher salaries? Teacher salaries generally reflect academic degrees and years of experience. For example, the salary schedule for 12-month teachers in Montgomery County, Md., starts at $61,436 for new teachers with a bachelor’s degree (for 10-month employees, it’s $52,286). More experience translates into higher steps and thus higher salary.

If a district did have a lot of teachers with higher salaries, that suggests the district has either recruited highly experienced teachers or does a good job retaining teachers. And that’s not a bad thing! Teachers with more experience tend to be more effective, on average.

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As noted elsewhere, studies from Florida, Denver, and Tennessee indicate that teacher bonuses help to retain teachers. Research from Michigan and multiple studies from North Carolina find that the length of time teachers stay in teaching depends on salaries and opportunity costs—that is, the salary teachers forgo by staying in teaching instead of moving into a different field. Further illustrating the role of opportunity costs, a study from Washington state found that female teachers stay longer in the profession when local teacher salaries increase relative to salaries available in other local employment. Males stay longer when teachers are paid more across the state.

In addition to retaining experienced teachers, salary may play a role in attracting teachers with strong qualifications. Within local teacher labor markets, a study using data from the Schools and Staffing Survey found metropolitan areas where teachers are paid more tend to have teachers with higher qualifications, as measured by undergraduate college selectivity and subject-matter expertise. This matters because college selectivity and subject-matter expertise are measurable, policy-relevant teacher characteristics associated with teacher quality.

Consistent with these studies, recent research finds that teachers salaries are related to student outcomes. Using national representative data, one study found that math and English test scores are significantly higher in districts that offer higher base salaries to teachers. Additionally, higher teacher base salaries reduce achievement gaps by raising test scores for Black and Hispanic students. Another study using data from Texas suggests it may be possible to improve student-achievement growth at no cost by reshaping salary schedules, since pay increases have the largest effect on hire rates among teachers with 2–3 years of experience.

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College graduates weigh many factors when deciding what career to pursue. Salary is just one part of the equation; working conditions, work-life balance, and opportunities for career advancement are also important. But if we truly care about providing high-quality educational opportunities for all students, we should consider the role that salaries play in attracting and retaining effective educators.

Thanks, Cara!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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