Should We Pay Teachers More? Let the Market Decide

“Teachers don’t make enough money.” It’s a refrain we’ve all heard over the years. In fact it’s a song that’s been sung so often that few people question its truth. The truth is the song is partly true, and partly false. It is certainly true that we do not pay some of our teachers nearly what they are worth. It is also true, however, that we pay some of our teachers entirely too much.

Salaries for the vast majority of public school teachers in the U.S. are determined based on salary schedules. Salary schedules are not incredibly complex. [Click here to access the the most recent version of the teacher salary schedule in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville).] A teacher can identify how much she will earn by locating her years of teaching experience and her education level. For example, in Jefferson County, KY, a teacher with zero years of work experience and a bachelor’s degree (Rank III, Kentucky) will earn an annual salary $41, 767.35. A teacher in Jefferson County with 10 years of experience, a master’s degree, and an additional 30 credit hours of coursework (Rank I, Kentucky) will earn an annual salary of $65,008.03.  That same teachers with 10 years of experience would earn $67,446.26 if she had a doctoral degree.

With a salary schedule, a teacher knows exactly how much she is going to earn in annual salary based solely on how long she has taught and how much education she has; there is no consideration of what she teaches, the demand for teachers in her area of specialization, the scarcity of teachers in her geographic or content area, or how effective she has been in the classroom. So a teacher with 10 years of experience and a masters degree who is highly effective and teaches AP physics in a school district where there are only two physics teachers, earns the same salary as another teacher in the district with 10 years of experience and a masters degree who is minimally effective and teaches family and consumer sciences, a content area where there is no shortage of teachers.

I propose paying teachers what the market says they are worth. In my estimation, a teacher who is highly effective has a higher market rate than an teacher who is mediocre or minimally effective . A teacher who teaches in a highly specialized content area where it’s difficult to find teachers ought to be paid a premium. A teacher who teaches in a hard-to-staff geographic or content area, or in a school district where it is difficult to attract and retain high quality teachers ought to be paid a premium. The truth is there is enough money in public education to pay highly effective teachers a much more competitive salary. There is not enough money, however, to pay all teachers a premium, regardless of what they teach and how effective they are.

Further, the idea of paying a teacher more or less based solely on their years of experience and education level is outdated. Seriously reconsidering teacher pay can be quite helpful in our quest to attract and retain the absolute best and brightest to the teaching profession.

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