Differential pay: The policy opposed by both sides in the debates over the future of K-12 education

The data almost scream an answer to the shortage of teachers in math and certain sciences:  Pay higher salaries to teachers in those subjects!

A similar differential pay strategy would probably also be the most effective way to attack the problem of high teacher turnover in schools with large numbers of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds – pay high-performing teachers more to work in high-needs schools.

So why hasn’t differential pay caught on in policy circles or on the ground in the school districts?

Because both large constituencies in the public education debates – defenders of the traditional public school systems (who are most often liberal) and “reformers” (who are most often conservative) – are opposed to it, although for different reasons.

Defenders of traditional school systems like the conventional salary schedule system in which teacher pay is determined by the number of years of experience of a teacher and the teacher’s graduate degrees, but in which the market value of a teacher’s subject area is not taken into account (that is, teachers in all subjects are on the same salary schedule).  Defenders of the traditional salary schedule argue that it is important for the sake of the community of teachers that all are treated the same, and that teachers don’t go into the profession for the money.  In addition, they argue that years of experience and graduate degrees are reasonable proxies for teaching effectiveness.

In analyzing these claims, let’s start with the second – that teachers don’t go into the profession for the money.  Those brave souls presently teaching calculus and physics in the public schools certainly didn’t go into it for the money.  Nearly all of them had better economic prospects outside of teaching.  They got into teaching out of a sense of mission.  We should be grateful for their service.

But…there are not nearly enough of these noble individuals who are willing to teach despite the salary to meet the need for higher level math and physical science teachers.   To meet the need, we must start trying to attract into the teaching profession those strong math and science students who are not willing to give up the $50,000 starting salary that is typical for those fields to take a $38,000 teaching job.  Are these strong students being selfish?  Perhaps they want to start families and know that the $12,000 salary penalty for teaching would make raising children much more difficult.  Is that selfish?

In discussing this, we should also note that English, art and music majors don’t have the same salary penalties for entering the teaching profession.  In fact, the choice of a teaching career might very well be the most lucrative option for those students.  Would raising the starting teacher salary to $50,000 per year as Senator Soto proposes bring significantly more strong English, art and music teachers into the profession?  Probably not.

Two more notes on the arguments of the traditionalists:  Research demonstrates that experience actually is a good proxy for teacher effectiveness, but only up to five years.  Teacher salary schedules typically postpone significant raises until much later than that.  As for graduate degrees in education?  There is no evidence that they are correlated with improved achievement.

So would subject-based differential pay strain interpersonal bonds in the community of teachers?  Probably.  But the status quo is not meeting the needs of our students.  That should be the highest priority for the teaching profession.

And about the “reformers”?  Matthew Ladner seems to speak for the community when he says that Florida’s K-12 system must dramatically cut costs to deal with an aging state population.  There is no room for increasing teacher salaries, even to attract strong math and science students to the profession.  It seems likely that in this Ladnerian dystopia, “expensive” subjects like physics and calculus would fall off the edge of the instructional table and would only be available in the form of recorded lectures that would once and for all institutionalize the failed traditional lecture class.  That is, after all, the common sense solution to the shortage of teachers in upper level math and science – to give up on the hope of giving more students from a broader range of backgrounds access to the technological leadership careers of the 21st century by denying them access to the interactive learning environments they need to succeed.

So here is my message to Senator Soto, who has proposed raising the starting salary to $50,000 for all teachers, regardless of what subject they teach and in which schools they teach (which is clearly a non-starter in Florida’s Republican Legislature):  If you want to make a statement that may actually turn some heads, propose a differential pay scheme for teachers in math and science and for those brave souls who are willing to teach in high-needs schools.  You probably will not succeed this year, but perhaps such a proposal would put us on the road to an educational system that offers more opportunity to students who most need it.

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