In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords and jargon, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it might mean for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and we will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us. Today’s topic is teacher pay.
Rick: Teacher pay is one of those issues where the loudest voices on the left and right tend to talk past one another. That always makes me suspect that, if we get past the bombast, there are practical points of agreement to be found. So, I’ll start with this: I think terrific teachers are woefully underpaid and I’d like to see teachers get a big raise. At the same time, I’m skeptical that the answer is more spending or higher taxes.
Let me run through a few facts to set the table. The National Education Association reported this spring that, in 2021–22, average national teacher pay was $66,745. That’s not peanuts, but it’s below the $70,000 median for college grads. And we’ve been moving in the wrong direction: Between 2012 and 2022, inflation-adjusted teacher pay fell by nearly 4 percent. That’s why there’s bipartisan support for boosting pay. Last year, the annual nationally-representative Education Next survey found that 72 percent of respondents thought teacher salaries should be higher (just 4 percent thought they should be lower). Republicans supported higher pay by 56 percent to 7 percent, for heaven’s sake.
That said, even as real teacher pay fell from 2012 to 2022, real per-pupil spending increased by 16 percent. And that’s not just a matter of COVID spending: In 2019, even before all the federal pandemic aid, U.S. schools were spending $16,743 per student (in 2021 dollars). New York City spent $38,000 per student last year, or more than $850,000 per class of 23 students. You don’t have to be especially good at math to imagine that we can raise pay within existing budgets.
So, for me, the question isn’t “Why won’t taxpayers pony up more dollars?” It’s “Why aren’t more dollars translating to more pay?” I’ve got thoughts on this. But, first, I’m curious to hear your take on this count.
Jal: This seems to me an issue that is ripe for a grand liberal-conservative bargain, as I largely agree with you. To those 56 percent of Republicans who want to raise teacher salaries, come join us on the progressive side of the aisle!
As I argued in The Allure of Order, education has consistently made a fundamental category mistake by not treating teachers as professionals. The assumption when the modern school system came into being during the Progressive Era was that teaching was not very complex work (many universities, including my own, wouldn’t touch the idea of pedagogy), and thus it should be organized into a bureaucratic hierarchy. Taking their cues from the emerging field of organizational science, the idea was to put power in the (mostly male) superintendents and their staff to oversee the (largely female) teaching force. And this split persists to this day: So many decisions that affect teachers are made by higher-ups who are far removed from the daily realities of the job.
A more professional form would reverse this. If we take seriously that teaching is highly complex professional work, then we should pay teachers like professionals. (This would allow for a significant reduction in the supervisory class.) Especially now that women and people of color have so many more career options than they did when the system was erected, you’ve got to pay teachers well if you want to get talented people to choose the profession.
My one caveat to this is that teaching is a learning profession, so we need to continue paying people to work alongside teachers to help them grow and learn. So, I wouldn’t cut money for coaches or other people who work directly with teachers. But, as your figures show, there has been a significant growth in the administrative class, far beyond those who directly work with schools.
Now, none of this gets at the issue of differentiated pay. How do you feel about that?
Rick: First, let me say: Yep, yep, yep. I think your historical sketch here is spot-on. The upshot is we’ve got a profession framed for a world that no longer exists. So, the question is how we think about a teaching profession (and professional compensation!) for the world we actually inhabit.
Having said that, let me thumbtack differentiated pay for just a moment—I’ll come back to it.
If we approach teaching as complex professional work rather than low-level drudgery, it becomes pretty clear that we should rethink how we staff schools. Even as we’ve added staff and steadily increased school spending, we’ve treated educators as functionally interchangeable and walled off teachers from supervisors as assiduously as if schools were food-processing plants.
Well, none of this makes much sense today. As you note, we no longer have yesterday’s captive labor force. Instead, schools seek to woo 22-year-old college graduates by promising them a job they can do into the 2050s—a pitch that falls flat in 2023 (when new graduates rarely stay in the same job for five years, much less 25). Meanwhile, we’ve got skilled, experienced 45-year-old professionals who are ready to change careers in search of meaningful work, huge numbers of part-time professionals, and tools that allow educators to mentor students from across the globe.
In knowledge professions like law, engineering, and medicine, it’s understood that the contribution of different staff varies with training, experience, and aptitude. Organizations design roles (and compensation) to suit that reality. The goal is usually to take the fullest advantage of talent and expertise.
We should import that same intuition to schools. If teachers have scarce skills (such as expertise in early reading or advanced science), schools should squeeze maximum value out of those skills. Veteran teachers with a record of success should have the opportunity to take responsibility for more students. Accomplished teachers who want to work year-round (without resorting to bartending or house painting) should have the chance to take on appropriate supervisory and administrative roles during the summer. Teaching roles, pay, and benefits shouldn’t discourage midcareer entry or part-time employment.
In practice, this means trimming administration; empowering veteran teachers to take on new responsibilities or additional students; putting a premium on educators with in-demand skills; creating roles that take advantage of part-time professionals; and, given changes in professional routines, shifting dollars from benefits to take-home pay. The upshot, as I’ve suggested before, could yield a 25 percent pay bump in median teacher pay: up to $84,000 a year.
Now, is this differentiated pay? Sure. But the point isn’t differentiating pay; it’s rethinking the profession and then reconfiguring accordingly. I know you’ve some considered thoughts on all this, so I’m curious where you land.
Jal: I really like the idea of thinking in terms of varied roles and not simply paying some teachers more and others less. One of the seldom-questioned features of our inherited grammar of schooling is the idea that the only kind of person who can be a “teacher” is someone who works as a full-time employee within a school. On reflection, we can see that this isn’t true. If we think about learning more broadly, we realize that all kinds of people can be and are “teachers”; all it takes is someone who knows a little bit about something and someone who wants to learn. And, in fact, as Sarah Fine and I have argued previously, much of the most powerful learning is apprenticeship learning, in which the student is learning alongside someone who is a little further along in their practice—be it on the athletic field, in the dance studio, or at the skate park.
There are ways that we might formalize this idea as we rethink the teaching profession. For example, in Cowichan, British Columbia, the district decided to pay Indigenous elders as paraprofessionals as a way to teach about Indigenous culture to their students. What if we adopted and extended that idea? What if we paid stipends to people in all sorts of organizations around a given school—graphic design firms, theater troupes, artist studios, and so forth—and had students spend some of their time in those places, rather than in school? What if we considered these people akin to “clinical faculty,” the way that medical schools draw on the expertise of practicing doctors to complement the more classroom-based part of medical education? And, what if, in this world, part of what it meant to be a school-based teacher was to see oneself as a curator and connector, offering some instruction on site but also connecting with local experts who may know about those same topics in more applied ways? Assuming a stipend of $3,000, schools could connect with 20–30 people for the cost of one full-time teacher.
Now, that’s an idea for reimagining. But I wanted to close by returning to your original point—that if we substantially reduced district-level administration, we could substantially increase salary, particularly in larger districts where there is more administration. I think this is a trade principals would make 10 times out of 10. Making this shift is also critical for reviving a seriously ailing profession—raising teachers’ salaries is the most straightforward and powerful way of signaling that the public takes the teaching profession seriously.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.