Friday, March 14, 2008

Who Says Teachers Are Underpaid?

Noticed this story in the NYT last week about a new charter school where teachers are going to be paid $125,000/yr. If that weren't jaw-dropping enough, the principal (and founder) is only going to be paid $90,000. His theory is that teacher quality is the single most important factor in creating good schools and that teacher pay is the single best way to attract good teachers. The article kind of hails the school as an experiment that will test the theory.

I will be interested to see how things work out. Since they have to cut some things in order to maintain that level of pay, I think it could be a pretty good case study of whether teacher quality outweighs other factors in constructing a good school. In other words, given limited resources, are we better off with excellent teachers, bigger classes, and fewer administrators or is some other combination better (e.g., more teachers and service personnel and smaller classes).?I'm inclined to think that teacher quality is more important in high school whereas class size is more important in early grades so that some kind of sliding scale is really what we need. But I think it's an empirical question such that some fiddling around with various combinations is a good idea.

Obviously, the sample will be far too small to determine whether anything like this is workable on a more national level (i.e., whether massively boosting teacher pay is the best way to improve educational quality). At capacity, the school will only have 28 teachers. So let's say they get the 28 best teachers in New York City (which obviously they won't). All we'll know is that for those already in the teaching profession, pay is a factor in determining where they want to work. But we already knew that. It will merely be a transference and concentration of already existing talent, surely not a recipe for educational reform on a broad scale.

The more important question, from a public policy perspective, is whether massively boosting teacher pay will improve the overall quality of teachers--something I've posted about before. And it isn't clear that one charter school, no matter how successful, will be able to tell us much about that.


NonVoxPop said...

AJK- I know this post is about the end result of high pay for teachers on quality of education, and isn't meant to address the issue of teacher compensation from a merit standpoint in any sense, but I think the merit vantage point deserves some attention, too.

Obama recently asked something like "why shouldn't an excellent k-12 teacher be making $100k a year?" The question is especially poignant for me when I consider 1) that grads of top law schools make more than $125k/yr, and 2) the work they're engaged in is undoubtedly less important.

On this latter point, I think of all that teachers have to do, not only in terms of conveying knowledge, but especially in identifying and honing and routing the variety of innate potentials that students variously possess. It occurs to me that while we think of "teacher" more as "instructor," what we really want is something more akin to "Rabbi," enveloping something like an instructor/counselor/psychologist/judge/etc. Certainly such people are worth $100k, if not more.

In any event, my point isn't to use your blog as a forum for my embryonic views on school, but rather to suggest (albeit in a long winded way) that maybe the criteria we should be using ought not to be merely the ends-oriented (subject to all the ungeneralizable confines you delineated), but also include an element of front-end normative consideration.

AJK said...

I agree that there is a compelling case that the importance of teachers entails that they should be paid more. But I actually think that "importance" is very difficult to calculate and so ends oriented calculations are the best way to determine compensation. What do we have to pay to achieve the educational goals we want given all of the other societal goals we have. Of course, this is still tough, and some goals will have to be adjusted: we probably can't have everything we want. But I think it's clearer than trying to figure out whether a teacher is worth more than a policeman.

NonVoxPop said...

Nah, it's not so hard. To make it easier for the world, I'll stack rank professions for all of us. Here's a sampling of the top 10 (note-- there are hierarchies within these broad categories, too [i.e., within "lawyer," civil rights lawyer would come before tort lawyer]-- I'll take care of those as the need arises)in order of importance:
1. Law Professor
2. Lawyer
3. Teacher (K-12)/Parent Educator
4. Professor (other)
5. U.S. President
6. Physician
7. Rock Star
8. Prophet
9. Movie Critic
10. Police Officer

A more detailed list is available on request.

AJK said...

Clearly, "movie critic" is too low and "U.S. President" is too high.

Anonymous said...

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