A fifteenth dimension for the teacher pay puzzle

I realize I’m entering shark-infested waters here, and that hordes of smart people have spent their careers thinking about these issues before me, but a new study on the specific, lifetime value of teachers adds an important dimension to this debate.

The high-profile study, which followed 2.5 million kids over 20 years, found that teacher quality, as measured by test scores, predicted pretty amazing results.

  • An outstanding forth-grade teacher — yes, just the forth-grade teacher —  delivers $25,000 in more income to each student over his or her lifetime
  • A very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year
  • The study also found that high-quality teachers brought stability to their student’s lives outside of just better paying jobs (although one may naturally follow the other).  According to Michelle Rhee in Education Week:

The kids with more effective teachers had lower teen-pregnancy rates and higher college-enrollment rates than their peers. They also had higher earnings, lived in better neighborhoods, and even saved more for retirement.

Beyond the results, what’s hard to ignore in this study is that test scores — those maligned, poorly constructed and poorly deployed barometers of “success” — did a pretty good job of predicting lifetime achievement, even when controlling for socioeconomic status.  In other words, students in two side-by-side forth-grade classrooms could have profoundly different lifetime experiences based solely on teacher quality.

Rhee might be right that $55,000, the average teacher’s salary and a little above the median household income ($50k), is “pretty paltry when you consider what’s at stake.”

Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic thinks the study means we should push for nuanced, customized compensation schemes in every school district.

[W]hy on earth should we pay teachers according to the same criteria? It’s not necessarily about prioritizing reading over algebra, or chemistry over art (although it could be). It’s about the need to find individual incentives that work. Because, in the end, there’s no such thing as a regular, plain old “teacher.”

About the only idea with majority support in the teacher pay puzzle is that we need to reward more than just years of experience and level of education, that one size probably doesn’t fit all. Teachers in hard-to-fill roles should be paid more.  Teachers who raise their students’ test scores by more than a grade level every year should be paid more.  Teachers who do great things for their students that can’t be measured on a standardized test should be paid more.   All of this varies by school district, which makes the case for highly flexible, but accountable, compensation systems.

And how, then, should we pay teachers who fail to meet minimum performance standards (assuming such standards exist)? Nick Kristoff thinks we should pay them $100,000 to retire, because that’s how much of a monetary drag they are on each class of children over their lifetimes.

Let’s be clear: teaching is not sales.  Teaching success depends on a host of uncontrollable and unknowable factors, many of which can’t be captured by ScanTron.  However, these studies show that some cocktail of achievement metrics — test scores, peer and principal observation, classroom energy and teacher control — needs to be part of the equation.

The solution to the teacher pay puzzle seems to be one we’ve heard over and again from ed reformers:  Targeted bonus pay for outstanding teachers, targeted “redirection” for chronic underperformers, and public policy support that meets hard-working schools in the middle by addressing the uncomfortable reality that poverty depresses educational achievement.


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