Why You Can’t Just Raise Teacher Pay

Dana Goldstein ends a pretty harsh review of American Teacher by musing about whether higher teacher salaries are even possible:

All that said, there is little doubt the quality of the teacher corps would improve if the job paid a six-figure salary. I love that idea! But any such increase in teacher pay would require either that we drastically raise taxes or rearrange spending priorities—exceedingly unlikely—or that we cut other major expenses in school budgets. Should class sizes be much larger? Should sports programs be canceled? Will administrators agree to take a pay cut?

I would actually worry less about the practical politics of this idea and more about the time span. If you have a workforce and then you give a raise to your workforce, then post-raise you still have the same workforce you had the day before the raise. It’s true that the average quality of your future job applicants will go up, but since the quit rate of the staff will also decline, the turnover here is going to be very slow. In the education context, roughly doubling teacher salaries would involve asking taxpayers to bear an extremely large up-front cost for a very slow payoff down the line.

This is why in practice initiatives to create highly paid teachers have often come from figures like Michelle Rhee, who the makers of American Teacher despise. Her idea in DC was to create a higher-paid teaching track, where the people on the track would have less job security and a bigger performance pay component but in exchange would earn more money. That’s an effort to speed up the lifecycle of the better pay –> better teachers transition. This seems to be proving popular in practice with DCPS teachers who are voting with their feet for the new track, but national teachers unions really disliked the idea and made defeating Adrian Fenty’s re-election a priority. That kind of resistance to trading off higher salaries in exchange for anything makes it really hard to build a political coalition that would pay teachers more.