In a market economy the laws of supply and demand operate inexorably. There is a direct relationship between what people are willing to pay for a product or service, and the number of people willing to supply that product or service. The normal salary range for various occupations is one of the primary considerations of most people when they select a career. Salaries for teachers are relatively low compared to other professions. The best and brightest students attending our colleges and universities (based on entrance exam scores and grade point averages) typically elect to major in fields other than education. Our institutions of higher learning produce many highly skilled doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We do not have enough highly qualified teachers. If we expect a greater percentage of our most talented students to choose teaching as a profession, we must increase salaries for teachers.
Even at their present level, teachers’ salaries constitute a major part of school district budgets. Increasing salaries will require a significant increase in the amount of money devoted to education. There are those who argue that “throwing money at the problem” will not improve the quality of public education. These are often the same people who talk about forcing public schools to compete. Large corporations compete with each other for top executives by offering salary and benefit packages that quite commonly total millions of dollars per year. Movie studios, television networks, and professional sports teams pay astronomical salaries as they compete with each other to attract the most talented entertainers and athletes. Our colleges and universities compete with each other with regard to the salaries they offer. They know that the ability to attract talented professors is the key to offering superior educational opportunities to their students.
There are, of course, some dedicated individuals with above-average abilities who enter the teaching profession in spite of the relatively low pay. There are not enough of these dedicated individuals, however, to fill more than a small percent- age of our classrooms. We will never succeed in enticing a larger number of gifted individuals to enter the teaching profession, without offering higher salaries. The fact that it will be extremely difficult to develop public and political support for substantial increases in funding for education does not alter the fact that it will be nearly impossible to achieve significant improvement in the quality of instruction offered through the public educational system without paying teachers more. It is reasonable to view the issue of increased salaries for teachers as a litmus test to determine how serious we are about improving our schools.
An additional problem related to teachers and salaries is the fact that most teachers are paid based on the number of years they have taught and the number of hours of post-graduate work they have completed. With this approach to determining salaries there is no financial incentive for teachers to work harder or more effectively. In the ongoing debate about whether or not teachers are fairly compensated, the correct answer is that our most talented and dedicated teachers are underpaid; average teachers are being paid about the right amount; and lazy, mediocre, and downright incompetent teachers are overpaid.
Some teachers work very hard at doing a good job. They use their planning time effectively, put in extra time outside the classroom preparing lessons and grading papers, and read broadly to keep abreast of current developments related to the subjects they teach, as well as to increase their general knowledge. Other teachers put in the minimum amount of time and effort required of them. They spend little or no time outside the classroom in activities related to teaching. Even the planning periods they are given during the school day are devoted to hanging around the teacher’s lounge complaining about students and/or administrators, exchanging gossip, talking on the phone, or engaging in other activities not related to teaching. In many cases these teachers are actually paid more than the teachers who are working harder, since the sort of burn-out exemplified by these negative attitudes and behaviors is more common among teachers who have been teaching long enough to reach the top of the pay scale. Most of the teachers who are doing their best are doing so out of a sense of pride in their work, and a sense of commitment to their students and to the teaching profession. Since they are working hard within the present salary structure, they are obviously not let- ting the inequity of the situation affect their performance. On the other hand, if pay were more effectively tied to performance, teachers who are not putting forth their best effort would have a clear incentive to work harder.
One solution that has been proposed to get more highly skilled teachers into the classroom is to make it easier for schools to get rid of incompetent teachers. The problem with this idea is that after we get rid of incompetent teachers, we must replace them with teachers who are more competent. At the present time, we have a severe shortage of highly skilled individuals willing to enter, or remain in, the teaching profession. While personnel directors may occasionally make mistakes with regard to identifying and hiring the most competent individual from among the applicants for a teaching position, there is no line of talented individuals waiting for positions to open up in the classroom.
A second approach to improving the caliber of teaching, implemented in some states and proposed in others, is raising standards for prospective teachers and/or making the certification process more demanding. Making it harder, more expensive, and more time consuming to enter a profession that is already facing a shortage of talented workers, runs counter to the laws of supply and demand. Unless this strategy is linked to significant increases in compensation for teachers, the likely result will be to decrease, rather than increase, the number of accomplished individuals who are interested in a career in teaching. On the other hand, significant increases in pay will attract a greater number of talented individuals to the teaching profession. If we then simply hire the most qualified applicants from among that pool of applicants, de facto standards for teachers will be raised in the process.