Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: How Much Are Teachers Worth?

Sorting through piles of past-their-prime periodicals, I happened upon a back issue of the Teach for America alumni magazine, One Day.  Since finishing my stint with Teach for America ten years ago and putting my teaching career on hold three years ago, I haven't given as much thought to issues of education policy as I once did.  Something in this issue caught my eye, however: an article on teacher compensation.

There were many things that I loved about teaching: the kids (most of them, at least), the constant learning, the sense of doing Important Work.  Oh yeah, and the summer vacations.  Among the things that I liked less were the relative lack of respect my career choice garnered me among some of my peers.  Oh yeah, and the fact that I could barely afford, even as a single, dependent-free woman, to live in Manhattan - the very borough where I taught - because my salary was so low.

The article "A Just Reward" examines the idea of performance pay for teachers and considers the merits of compensating teachers based on how well their students "do" - on what exactly, it's not always clear.  Quoted in the article is a college classmate of mine, and fellow TFA alumnus, Zeke Vanderhoek, who founded a New York City charter school where the starting salary for each of the school's teachers is $125,000 (literally five times the amount I made as a teacher in New York City in 1998; median pay for New York teachers without a master's degree is now $53,000).  Vanderhoek's teachers work longer hours and meet far higher demands and, according to him, are paid accordingly.

For ten years, I was a very hard-working teacher.  I prepped lessons, graded papers, communicated with parents, and coached teams before and after the school day and on weekends.  I never felt that I was working fewer hours than my friends at law firms and on Wall Street.

Until the summer, that is.  Sure, I spent plenty of time doing school-related work during the summer.  But the rhythm of my life changed in a way that allowed me - even if only for those two months - to achieve a work-life balance that is unattainable for so many.  I scraped by on my meager income and didn't gripe about it that much because I felt like I was living a manageable life.

But the stakes have changed in the teaching world, even in the few years since I've left it.  Teaching to the test has become the gray reality many teachers face.  But even when not gearing their lessons to help their students make gains on statewide exams, some teachers excel and others don't.  As an article in The New Yorker so painfully analyzed this summer, there is a reason that the profession is saddled with so many negative stereotypes and it was both frustrating and demoralizing to work alongside those whose commitment was so much lower than my own and that of the majority of my colleagues.

Would I have liked to have been paid more for the work I was doing, for the results my kids were getting?  Sure.  Do I think that is a good model for our teacher compensation system?  Not so sure.

In your opinion, which professions deserve the highest compensation?  How do you feel about merit pay for teachers? 

Image: Red Delicious by Bangin via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I am so sure that teachers do not get paid enough. I do not, though, like the idea of merit pay when it is based on standardized tests. Long story but I don't think it works. I think, if I go back, I have written about this before.

    BTW, my 22 year old (her 23rd bday is Sunday) has a Teach for America face-to-face interview in Feb. She didn't even have to go through the phone interview.

  2. This is such a tricky subject. It's awful that many teachers are paid so little. I worked at the HS here for 3 years (not as a teacher) and was amazed at the continuing ed hours and all the state licensing requirements that are ongoing. It's an enormous job, altho the vacation weeks and summers off are a great perk. I felt like some teachers loved their jobs and worked so well helping kids reach their potential, while others just go thru the motions. Should there be some kind of salary incentive related to this? In theory I'd say certainly. But like you said, how to come up with the criteria. And let's face it, the unions would certainly protest. As a nurse we had salary increases and merit based increases, as do other professions. I read that article in the New Yorker, and situations like aren't allowed to go on for long in many other professions. Like you said, a tough situation, but one that bears considering some change. Good for you for opening a discussion.

  3. This is a little freaky. I started my post at midnight last night, slept a few hours, and finished it at 7 this morning before the usual mad rush to school with my son at 8:10. About teachers, and our school system. But mostly - the remarkable difference that a single teacher can make in a child's life. At any stage.

    Bravo to those who hang in and perform this essential job. And to the parents - already weary - who pitch in and help in our public school system.

  4. One more note: I really did send my son to school with two apples in his lunch today. One for him, and one for his teacher. When I asked him to give it to her, his expression was puzzled. I was startled. He is 16 years old, but had never seen or heard the "apple for a teacher" gesture. I explained that it was old school - a way to say thank you.

    His teacher, I believe, will understand the intent.

  5. I don't know that salary compensation should be dependant on standardized test scores, but I do know that teachers are well underpaid ( and often under-appreciated) in most areas.

  6. AS far as teacher's pay. I taught in BC for quite awhile as a music teacher. One of my friends, a fabulous teacher, had to leave to a different school because of some environmental allergy issues. Anyway, when she left, she was being replaced by a brand new teacher, who had substituted in the classroom quite a bit for her. Anyway, when the new teacher came in to work a few days before my friend left, she was shocked. Where were all the books? The paper? The puppets? The bookracks? Tables? Posters? Everything that made the classroom alive had disappeared, and weren't supplied by the school budget at all. Except for some basic art supplies.


    Paid for out of my friend's pocket, as most teachers do to make their rooms educationally rich. It brought the new teacher to tears.

    And test scores to base salaries on doesn't work. There's a lot more to how a child performs in school than just the teacher. Home, being a key one. I worked in an inner city school for awhile. Some AWESOME teachers there. Would their kids have scored high? Nope. But the kids were glad to be in school, and their teachers provided an environment that was positive and structured and happy, sometimes the only place where the kids felt safe. And they were learning. That should account for something more than the compensation they received.

    I could go on about the struggle with how to find criterion to review teachers, and how there has to be an easier way to dismiss bad teachers. There are far too many of them out there, and because teachers work so much in isolation, they can fudge it for far to long.

    Now I've got my dander up. LOL *jk*

    I enjoyed reading your post. Well done. *star and a red check mark*
    Good post.

  7. Such a tricky question. I taught for 13 years. I put in %110 to my job and I'm nervous about merit pay. Why? I have no idea. I worked hard, received a few awards and accolades. But I saw so much politicking going on that I'm afraid merit pay would just go to the best a$# kissers.

  8. The district that I used to work in is in an ugly situation right now concerning compensation and the teacher's contract. I don't know the answer to this dilemma, but do know that when I chose to become a teacher it certainly wasn't for the cash!

    I did like teaching in Japan, because even though their salaries were comparable to those made by American teachers they are referred to as "sensei" which literally translates into "giver of life." Sweet. Sure beats being shouted out down the hall by my last name only...

  9. Such good and tricky questions. I don't have any fast or firm opinions on this one, but I do think that one variable in determining pay should be contribution to culture or society or the world. I don't pretend to know how this very vague and idealistic system would work, but I do think it is crazy that professional athletes get paid so much more than teachers.

    I also agree that basing teacher salaries on student test performance is a bit simplistic, if not misguided. Kids should be taught creativity and curiosity and individuality and so many other things that cannot be readily measured in a test scenario.

    Great post.

  10. Ever since my older child was school age, I've spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about his education. Why? Because I know that one special teacher, one click between that teacher and my son, can change his life and motivation. And, I hate to say it, the wrong teacher (of which there have been a few) can do some damage.

    I guess what always bothers me about this topic when I see it in the media is that there's this big issue standing behind the compensation issue - the fact that we don't really respect our teachers as intellectuals in our society. It's that idea that has to change so that people will seek out the occupantion.

  11. In my view teachers are culture heroes, and the fact that our overall culture does not value them is like an ailing canary in a coal mine. Although personally it is our largest expense by far and a serious burden, I have my kids in private school—mostly because I wish our public schools were not just "better," but free to teach children how to think in any original, critical and creative manner (rather than conform to often meaningless metrics of tests that have very little to do with the world they will live, work and love in).

    I've spoken at length with colleagues in LA who have worked to try and change the educational situation in the public schools here and their tales of frustration, politics and power-dynamics helped me understand why it's so messed up—as for how to improve it... I think this is one of our most important collective parenting questions.

    Perhaps some coalescing voice of those who care about this may be forming between us all... nice wish on a day that the supreme court said that corporations can spend as much as they want on political campaigns.

    Maybe it's ultimately going to be up to Google and Goldman Sachs.

  12. I read this yesterday and didn't have time to respond. I hope you don't mind my tardiness!!

    I think that merit pay, if handled correctly, would make sense. If a teacher is doing her best, giving her all, and truly caring, shouldn't she get paid more than a teacher that is just there?

    I disagree with performance pay. If your students test better than other students, your pay is increased. I think that teaching students to take tests is silly. They are not really learning.

    So, if merit pay is based on performance, I think it is a horrible idea.

    Really, Kristen, I kind of just want to say a big AMEN to your post.


Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I love hearing from you! I often reply to comments via e-mail so please make sure your e-mail address is set to "public" on your profile.