Are Experienced Teachers Really That Much Better?

How valuable is the experienced teacher?  In the view of the school committee of my hometown, Wellesley Massachusetts, it seems to be quite valuable, as they just raised the salaries of the most senior teachers by 1 percent for next year, while holding all other teacher salaries constant.

Nor is Wellesley an oddball in this regard. In Florida, the average school district, in 2010, paid 10 percent more for a teacher with 8 years of experience as it paid a first-year teacher. But after a teacher has been around for nearly a decade, salaries to climb more rapidly.  A teacher with 22 years of experience is earning 26 percent more than an eighth-year teacher.

Florida does not allow collective bargaining between teachers and school districts.  In Denver, where such bargaining does take place, salaries rise even more steeply. In 2007, the average teacher in the eighth year of teaching was collecting 18 percent more than a beginning teacher, and that eighth- year teacher would get another 24 percent increment five years later.

And when it comes to pensions, it is the longtime teacher that benefits the most.  In most parts of the country, teachers get no pension benefits at all if they leave teaching or move to another state within the first five years of teaching.

Unions like to concentrate big salary gains—and pension benefits—on the more experienced teachers, because those are the teachers who tend to have clout within the schoolhouse and inside the union.   There is nothing new about this.  When my wife, in her third year of teaching, was asked to serve on the bargaining committee, she discovered that all of her fellow union leaders were old-timers who quickly made a deal with the school district: pay nothing more to new teachers next year, but give those at the top of the salary schedule an extra salary boost.

School districts agree to such demands because there are fewer longtime teachers than rookies, making it cheaper—in the short run—to raise the salaries and the benefits of those with more experience.

All that would be fine, if more experienced teachers were far and away the most effective ones in the classroom. But according to a study Matthew Chingos and I just completed, teachers get better in the first few years of teaching, and then their performance slips in later years. Our findings are particularly interesting because they allow, for the first time, the tracking of a specific teacher’s performance over an eight-year time period.  So, for example, we can tell whether a teacher with 10 years of experience becomes even better 8 years later. Generally speaking, they do not.  Although teachers improve in the first years of teaching, the trend for the average teacher turns negative in the later years of teaching.

Nothing in our results says that we should not pay more experienced teachers more if indeed they are better teachers.  But it does call into question the standard salary schedule which rewards teachers for each year of teaching without paying any attention whatsoever to the quality of that instruction.

– Paul E. Peterson

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