Don't Ask to "Show Me" Why K-12 Education Needs Differential Teacher Pay

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you probably are well aware of the numerous flaws in the way our K-12 education system pays teachers. Most of the flaws emanate from the single salary schedule, which the vast majority of school districts use. Pay is differentiated almost exclusively by seniority and academic credentials, factors that have very little or no impact on meeting student learning needs.

Why can’t we differentiate pay based on instructional specialty, how hard it is to find someone qualified to teach in a particular area? A new report by James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute sheds some interesting light on the need for that commonsense approach. Missouri has far more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs available than non-STEM jobs, so shouldn’t there be a premium for people who are qualified in those areas?

Yet interestingly, Shuls went through Missouri Department of Education data to find that the state’s physical education, health and band teachers are the most highly paid as a group. Among the lowest-paid teachers are those in the areas of math and foreign language. Does that really make sense? Of course, no one planned it that way. It’s just the fallout from a system that doesn’t make truly meaningful distinctions.

Here in Colorado, my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow pointed out in a 2011 paper at least one major charter school — The Classical Academy — that is using differential (or “market-based”) pay to attract educators in certain specialties. And earlier this year, the state’s third-largest school district in Douglas County undertook to institute its own form of market-based pay — part of a systemic overhaul that includes new evaluations and true performance-based compensation.

Missouri certainly isn’t the only place where the lack of differential pay in K-12 education presents a problem. Nationwide, how many students have missed out on a great math or science teacher because of these irrational policies? Good question. That subject is suitable for another study. Maybe it’s already been done. I’d love to see it. As they say in Missouri, “Just Show Me!”