April 29, 2008

Tell me again: why don't we pay teachers well?

I read this article in the Times. I think it was also on Digg. I have heard no less than 3 co-workers discussing the same New York Times article about a charter school in New York. The basic premise of the newly approved charter school is that the best teachers turn out the most well educated students, and the way to attract the best teachers is to pay them well. “Well” meaning, well paid--in absolute terms--not relatively “well paid for teachers.” The starting salary is $125,000. The implications of this are far more significant than what is covered in the short article.

I say it is brilliant. Schools with the highest needs, which are usually in areas with the smallest tax base, are bleeding young, quality teachers. Teachers fresh out of school, inexperienced, head to these schools for a couple years and then look for a position in a higher paying district. Once they are equipped to best teach, they leave.

The profession of teaching struggles to attract smart, edgy career seekers because it is seen as a life of self-punishing service, in constant financial struggle. There is no way, regardless of talent and performance, for a teacher to make a salary that allows for a comfortable life in a major city. There is just no way to make a life in New York (or San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago, etc.) on $40,000. How could I ever buy a house on that? Granted, experienced teachers in my district make $70-80,000--which makes home-ownership more realistic. But going into teaching, while requiring a master’s degree, will never produce the salary that pursuing a career in i-banking, or engineering, or law will.

Teachers rely on a union to protect them from the district (government) and the administration. So by diminishing the administration, there is one less force attacking them. Then, in theory, if they are doing a good job (which is significantly easier with adequate compensation, for a variety of reasons, need I list them?) good teachers shouldn’t need the protection of a union. After all shouldn’t the students and parents protect them? And the bad teachers… well they will be fired. They will not be worth $125,000 a year to tax payers. But the good teachers can let their art in a classroom speak for itself.

There are more problems in the education system in this country than passengers on the Titanic. But paying teachers well is perhaps one step towards fixing at least one or two of the existing problems.


ghassan karam said...

But Liz, how high is up, how low is down and shouldn't we argue that all workers should be paid "well"?

elizabeth said...

Ahh, yes. In theory, absolutely! I am mostly responding to the chronic mis-allocation of the resources available in the current education system. The whole system and all of its brothers and sisters ought to be adjusted for equity, but I still think that if we started paying teachers more beginning tomorrow, the schools would be better for it.