Talking Teacher Pay without Breaking Up a Party or Getting Soap in the Mouth

When I happened to mention to my mom and dad that I might blog about this issue, one of them said: “That’s the kind of topic you bring up when you want to break up a party.” Well, there isn’t any party going on here right now, so why not just throw the provocative question out there: Are teachers paid too much? Before you roll your eyes, pick up your coat and walk out in disgust, let me explain briefly.

It’s not this precocious little 5-year-old who’s dumping broccoli on the birthday cake. It’s Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine, from a couple of Washington think tanks, who a couple weeks ago released the report Assessing the Compensation of Public School Teachers. Sounds pretty innocent, doesn’t it? Just wait. They released the report at an event called “Are Public School Teachers Overpaid?”

Now look. I could only begin to start explaining the research methods and the finer points of the debate. As a provocative way to bring attention to the topic of K-12 employee compensation, asking “Are Public School Teachers Overpaid?” is an effective way to bring attention to your work. And it definitely brought attention. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded directly in a Huffington Post column. Duncan comes across as unnecessarily snippy and personal — declaring that the study “insults teachers and demeans the profession.” (See my parents’ point about breaking up parties?)

Really? That sounds a little too dramatic. But the Secretary also makes a valid point that the provocative question isn’t the best way to frame the issue. Meanwhile, his own attempt to reframe the issue — saying that the authors “exaggerated the value of teacher compensation by comparing the retirement benefits of the small minority of teachers who stay in the classroom for 30 years, rather than comparing the pension benefits for the typical teacher to their peers in other professions” — was a bit hyperbolic. It is interesting to note that many of those on Duncan’s side prefer to focus on salary and ignore some of the key benefits.

Anyway, all this to say you really ought to read the follow-up by Rick Hess on his Education Week blog. Like my friends in the Education Policy Center, Hess believes some teachers are underpaid, and others indeed are overpaid. The problem is the system is out of whack and rewards far too many things that don’t matter:

As school systems wrestle with tough fiscal decisions, it’s vital to understand that one-size-fits-all pay is insensitive to questions of productivity. Although the term “productivity” is typically regarded as a four-letter word in K-12 conversations, teacher productivity means nothing more than how much good a given teacher can do. If one teacher is regarded by colleagues as a far more valued mentor than another, or helps students master skills much more rapidly than another, it’s axiomatic that one teacher is more productive than the other. Yet, step-and-lane pay makes no allowance for such differences.

Yikes, “productivity” is a four-letter word when talking about K-12? Just looking at a few of my more recent writings that use the word (see here, here and here) probably would mean it’s about time to wash out my mouth with soap. Which probably would rule out going to any parties to see if asking the provocative question about teacher pay really is as bad an idea as some people say it is. Then again, mom and dad aren’t “edu-crats.”

So let’s keep fixing how teachers and other professional educators are paid. Anyone who needs some ideas might want to start by reading Pioneering Teacher Compensation Reform: K-12 Educator Pay Innovation in Colorado.