How would the nation's school system be different if teachers were paid like engineers?
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed last month that a significant boost in teacher salaries could transform public schools for the better by luring the country's brightest college graduates into the profession.
Teachers should be paid a starting salary of $60,000, Duncan said, with the opportunity to make up to $150,000 a year. That's higher than the salaries of most high school principals, who are generally paid much more than teachers.
The median salary among all middle school teachers, for example, not just those starting out in the profession, is around $52,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Would paying teachers 2 to 3 times more money mean that students would learn more? We don't know. But smaller raises of 20 percent or less have been ineffective, and one New York City school that embraced much higher pay has so far underperformed on state tests.
"It will cost money—and—given the current political climate with the nation wrestling with debt and deficits—I am sure some people will immediately say that we can't afford it without even looking at how to redirect the money we are already spending—and mis-spending," Duncan said at the at a conference sponsored by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.
Duncan's office would not offer further details to The Lookout about how a school district could redirect money to teachers' salaries or whether Duncan had any specific plans to encourage such sweeping salary changes.
But Duncan's idea has been tried on a smaller scale, which helps us to try to predict what changes a radical increase in teacher salaries nationwide might have on education.
Zeke Vanderhoek, the founder and principal of the Equity Project, a charter school in New York City, decided to pay all of his middle school teachers $125,000 salaries because of research that shows a very good teacher can lift kids' test scores and close achievement gaps. Teachers at the school can earn up to $25,000 more in bonuses, depending on how well their students do.
The Equity Project had to make sacrifices in order to devote more resources to teacher salaries. Its average class is larger than at other city public schools, at about 30 students, and teachers are required to serve in administrative roles so that Vanderhoek doesn't have to hire assistant principals. He also doesn't have to hire any substitute teachers: full-time teachers cover for each other's absences. The teachers work longer days and have only three weeks off during the summer, in contrast to the months-long break many teachers receive.
Nor are the teachers in a union, because Vanderhoek says he must be able to fire teachers who aren't lifting kids' test scores.
Duncan hinted at the same tradeoff in his speech. "If teachers are to be treated and compensated as the true professionals they are, the profession will need to shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation to rewarding effectiveness and performance," he said. (Most public school teachers are in a union.)
It is too early to judge the Equity Project, but it has not yet worked any miracles on its high-need student population. Gotham Schools reported that for the second year in a row, the school's students did not outperform kids in regular schools in the district on state tests.
There is not a lot of research that shows the effect of higher pay on teacher performance, retention and satisfaction. This is in part because public school teachers are compensated fairly uniformly around the country.
"It's very hard to find a lot of variety in order to do research on the effect of different ways of paying teachers," said Neal McCluskey, the associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute, in an interview with The Lookout.
A few studies of programs that give teachers cash bonuses for lifting their students' test scores showed that those programs didn't work. Offering up to $15,000 to Nashville teachers did not lift students' performance, and a similar program in New York City was also shown to be a bust.
But looking at bonuses and other forms of merit pay isn't a good way to gauge the success of an across-the-board teacher salary hike, said Brian Lewis, the interim chief executive of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Teachers are paid so little in base salary that many high-achieving college graduates are not drawn to the field in the first place, Lewis told The Lookout. These students know they would be giving up significant lifetime earnings by becoming a teacher rather than entering a more lucrative profession.
In Norway and other countries where students do significantly better than Americans on math tests, teachers are recruited from the top third of college graduates. In the United States, only 23 percent of teachers come from the top third of their class, according to a McKinsey study. (Critics of teacher-focused reforms point out that there is significantly more child poverty in the United States than in most of the countries that perform better on standardized math tests.)
"We have a fundamental misalignment from what we're expecting of people who go into this career and the baseline salaries that we are willing to provide them," Lewis said.
But it's possible that teachers would rather have more job security than a higher salary. When Michelle Rhee controlled Washington D.C.'s schools, she offered up to $130,000 salaries to teachers if they would give up their union's tenure and seniority rules and agree to be paid based on their students' test scores. She could not get the teachers union to accept her offer.
Rhee eventually negotiated a slightly watered-down version of her plan, but she resigned only a few months later when the ouster of Mayor Adrian Fenty was widely seen as a rejection of her education policies.