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Education Reformers Keep Saying They Want to Pay Teachers More -- Do They Mean It?

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In education reformster land, words often mean the opposite of what they say. So, for instance, "Let's protect excellent teachers" actually means "Let's fix it so that any teachers can be fired at any time."

But a popular new opposites-land reformster refrain is "We need to pay teachers more."

It has been featured in a many StudentsFirst campaigns (including a crowdsourcing plea on a breast cancer site?!) and it's a prominent feature of new initiatives like the one being discussed in Indianapolis. Arne Duncan has said, "Let's pay great teachers $150K."

You would think "Let's pay teachers more" would be a fairly straightforward proposal. We could raise state taxes or even use some of that free federal money that DC makes appear out of nowhere. Whatever the source, we could fulfill this goal with a simple two-step process:

1) Gather up more money

2) Give it to teachers

The problem with that plan is Step 1. If there is anything reformsters are in absolute agreement on, it is that public school systems should cost less. So how are we going to pay more and make schools cost less?

The Indianapolis proposal shows part of how this works. "It... challenges the traditional step salary scale by proposing a cut in the pay for experience to instead create a funding pool for bonuses." By cutting the traditional experience-based scale, districts can free up a bunch of money which can then be divided up based on extra responsibilities and rewards for excellence. In other words, the new process would be:

1) Gather up money that used to be for raises

2) Let teachers fight over it

There are, to put it mildly, many challenges in a system like this. One is the damage to any sort of collegial atmosphere as everyone has to fight over a slice of the pie. This is not just a matter of greed; depending on how this system is structured, I may need to beat you out in order to pay my gas bills this winter so, no, I will not help you figure out a better way to teach that unit, and under no circumstances will I stand by and let you transfer Johnny Rocksforbrains from your class into mine.

Another huge problem with this system is the same problem with almost everything proposed by reformsters. When StudentsFirst says "Those who show they can move kids along academically should be compensated accordingly" what it means is "Pay teachers whose students get good test scores."

So, get a good class, get a bonus. Get a lousy class, get no bonus. And you teachers who teach subjects that aren't on The Test? Sucks to be you. And if a school has many excellent teachers? Too bad. I've always maintained that one of the reasons schools can't do true merit pay is that no school board is ever going to say to the public, "Hey, we have so many excellent teachers that deserve merit bonuses that we must raise taxes to do it up right." That pie is never going to get bigger.

Some systems may fold test scores in with observations, but most of us have already heard the refrain -- "Super-duper awesome excellence (or whatever your state calls it) is a place you visit, not a place where you live." Translation: you will only get bonus-worthy evaluations occasionally. Reformsters are willing to offer big money to "great" teachers because they are so certain that most teachers aren't great at all.

So would people want to pursue a career where their pay might not even keep pace with inflation over the course of their professional lives? Actually, North Carolina has been experimenting with this very approach, and the busloads of teachers quitting North Carolina schools is our answer. Even people who love teaching find it hard-to-impossible to devote their lives (and their family's support) to a job where the pay starts out mediocre and then shrinks ever year afterwards.

But it turns out that's a feature, not a bug. Mike Petrilli from the Fordham Institute (motto: the best thinky tank money can buy) states it plain in the New York Times: "Our public education system is among the only institutions in the land still pretending that professionals will spend their whole careers in a single job." Petrilli is pretty sure that millennials don't even want lifelong careers, which is great, because "lifers" are a drag on the education system.

Part of the reformster model of a perfect school is one where the staff churns and turns regularly. This not only keeps direct staff costs down, but also solves the problem of those nasty pensions, which can get so expensive if someone spends a whole career in education.

So "Let's pay teachers more" really means "Let's pay some teachers a little more for one or two years and hope they go away before they really start to care." It definitely does not mean "Let's turn teaching into a career that features really impressive career earnings."