Squaring the Teacher Salary Circle: It Can be Done

Last week, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, founders, according to their official ID, of the 826 National tutoring centers and producers of the documentary “American Teacher,” wrote an essay for the New York Times titled The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries. (We know that Eggers also happens to be author of the bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.)  Unfortunately, the headline doesn’t do justice to their argument, which is that we have to “make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates” by, among other things, better training and recruiting – but the headline also highlights the problem with their analysis: they can’t leave the “low pay” shibboleth alone.

What is refreshing about Eggers and Calegari’s approach is that it picks up on some of the more important findings of the recent McKinsey report (released last fall), which was also devoted to the question of attracting and retaining more – and more better! – teachers.  Their summary of McKinsey’s findings comparing the treatment of teachers in three high-performing countries – Finland, Singapore, and South Korea –  and is, more or less, apt:

First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do. And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

All fine and good. But the elephants in the room are many, and Eggers and Calegari get into trouble when they say that accountability, tenure, and test scores are  “worthy of debate” but “secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly.”  They omit “pay” in that sentence, but leave no doubt that it is of primary concern by devoting two paragraphs to it:

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary….

Booh-Hooh.  As I used to say to a local radio personality who would harp ceaselessly about the poor pay that teachers get, “Alan, I’ll agree to pay good teachers what they are worth if you agree to pay bad teachers what they are worth.”  No reply.

I have written on this topic before because it is an important one — and because many of the same errors of analysis get repeated.  (See my Pay Teachers More! post from March 13, which devoted attention to a wonderful column by Nicholas Kristoff on the subject, and my The “Great Teacher” Trap post, which highlights an Education Writers Association meeting hosted by the Carnegie Corporation, which has its own The Elusive Talent Strategy initiative. And those of you in Washington on May 9, may want to attend the Center for American Progress’ panel on Growing Great Teachers.)

I wish Eggers and Galegari well on their tutoring initiative, but I urge them to avoid the briar patch of “low pay” unless they understand the enormous costs already absorbed by such system inefficiencies as single salary pay schedules, last-in-first-out (LIFO) hiring rigidities, and, of course, tenure.  As a nation which already spends more per pupil on education than any industrialized country, we simply can’t continue to throw good money after bad.  No, we should not hold the good reform initiatives like those proposed by Eggers and Calegari hostage to these issues, but we can no longer afford to treat accountability, LIFO, tenure, and pay for performance issues as secondary.

–Peter Meyer

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