Too many top-scale teachers

Changing layoff rules isn’t enough (see previous post), writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.  We’re suffering from senioritis: “Our education system has way too many veteran teachers who cost way too much money and provide way too little value.”

Rigorous research is showing that, on average, teachers are just as effective after five years on the job as they are after 25 years. But the more experienced teachers cost our system a lot more. That’s true for salaries (on average, lifers make $15,000-20,000 more than their mid-career colleagues), but especially true for benefits. (Typical teachers earn million-dollar-plus pensions—if they stick out the job for their whole careers. Try matching that with your 401(k).)

Ideally, schools would employ a lot of effective mid-career teachers and a few “super-effective” lifelong teachers, who can act as leaders and mentors, Petrilli writes.

When principals have to pay the true cost of their teachers, they avoid hiring 30-year veterans. If a $50,000 a year teacher is just as effective as a $75,000 a year teacher and you’ve got $150,000 to spend, why settle for two when you can get three?

The current system is unsustainable, Petrilli argues. We can buy out the top-scale teachers, as Michigan is trying to do now.  (Early retirement plans have a long history in education because of this problem.)

. . . we can compress the salary schedule so that 5-year veterans and 25-year veterans get paid about the same, since they produce about the same results. (Jacob Vigdor explains how that would work in this Education Next article.) Trimming retirement benefits—so they are more in line with what most Americans get these days—would help too.

Finally, veteran teachers could save their younger colleagues’ jobs by offering wage and benefits concessions.

I’d hate to see good but not “super-effective” teachers get the chop after 20 years. I think the solution is to tie pay and benefits more closely to effectiveness (not easy, but we can do better), so that the veteran teacher is worthy of his or her hire.

In my newspaper days, our union negotiated higher pay based on experience for the first six years. After that, the only way to get a raise was to negotiate as an individual for “overscale,” i.e., merit pay. Once granted, overscale couldn’t be taken away. As the newspaper industry has declined, the surviving journalists have accepted pay cuts and unpaid furloughs. In the real world, where your employer can go under, that’s how it works.

About Joanne


  1. In one of the top clusters in one of the(supposedly) best districts, my kids had several very senior teachers who should have been retired but the process was too expensive to undertake. One with Alzheimer’s, one with serious medical problems and several who were just too old, tired or burned-out to do more than go through the motions.

  2. Yep, I’m old and tired and not as good in the classroom as I used to be. I’ll admit it.

    But when I entered the game, the rules were based on the salary schedule. Start with starvation wages, stick with it, and get compensated later for your early suffering.

    So, though it would be good for the school if I retired now, that’s not how the salary schedule was set up.

    Will I retire now, sacrifice my high pay, and make way for younger, more energetic teachers? Nope. I’d be collecting less than 75% of what I make, and with rising inflation and property taxes, that would make for less than golden years ahead.

    So what do you do with old farts like me? I don’t know.

    It would make sense to overhaul the entire pay scale system–but I have a feeling it will end up costing more.

    It’s cheaper to have a flawed system and grumble about it.

  3. In the real world, where your employer can go under, that’s how it works.

    The public sector is just as much a part of the “real world” as the private sector.

  4. At the same time, allowing teachers to retire at 30 years – early 50s for many – with full benefits is unsustainable.

  5. The public sector is just as much a part of the “real world” as the private sector.

    Except for the part about making a profit or going under. I’m not saying that’s the model that it should be but it’s all the difference in the world. When there’s no profit motive there’s a lot less incentive to control costs.

  6. “In the real world, where your employer can go under, that’s how it works.”

    You’re right, some businesses can go under. While there are some issues with the ways in which news is delivered, the collapse of the newspaper industry hasn’t affected me all that much.

    But schools cannot go under; they’re just too important. Why is it that we’re willing to pour billions of dollars into banks that are “too big to fail,” but not willing to realize that education is “too important to fail”?

  7. momof4, what do you mean by full benefits?

    I’ve taught for 35 years and if I retire now I’ll get less than 75% of my pay.

    To get full pay, I’d have to work more than 43 years and retire at age 67.

  8. Miller Smith says:

    Solution! Top out the pay scale at the current pay for 5 year teachers. Make the present 5th year the most any teacher can make. This will keep the staff turning over to save lots of money on not only salary, but pensions, as there will be no one stupid enough to stay around for 25 to 30 years to get a very low pension.

    Make teaching a short term job for the younger folks as a transition period into a real job. In my system ( that would start you at $40,000 and top you out at $44,000. That’s good enough to get a young college grad started in the Washington DC metro area!

    Can you imagine the money saved with this? Wow!

  9. Robert, no one gets 100% of their pay in pension benefits. Why would you hold that up as a standard? the goal is to have enough to live on after the kids are thru college and gone, the house is paid off, and you’re finally eligible for Medicare. And, believe, me, most of us in the private sector will get nowhere near 75%, even.

  10. EB, I’m not holding it up as a standard, just questioning the previous remark that seemed to imply that I’d get 100% after 30 years.

    I don’t have any complaints–though we don’t make out as well as police or the military.

  11. Government workers and some unions are pretty much the last survivors with defined benefits. In the private sector, aka the real world, you end up with your 401K and other savings. BTW, the military does not do that well because they only get a max of 75% of BASE pay – active-duty paychecks include housing allowance and various bonuses (flight, combat, some medical specialties etc), which can be substantial. And military retirees aren’t likely to get any care at military facilites because access is on a “space available” and there rarely is availability. Also, pilots and docs typically make far less in the military than in civilian life.

  12. My life sucks and so should yours! I wouldn’t take that argument from *my* students.

  13. I’d be collecting less than 75% of what I make, and with rising inflation and property taxes, that would make for less than golden years ahead.

    Too bad. Cope.

    And that’s what “we” do with “old farts” like you, ideally. We tell you we’re breaking the promise, and to count yourself lucky you’re getting 75%.

  14. Is there any way the Petrilli and momof4 could get what they want without a wave of old and disability lawsuits?

    The answer is improving conditions so we can attract and retain talent, LEGALLY fire ineffective teachers regardless of age; and NEGOTIATE moderate reforms.

    And no, I wouldn’t defend teachers with Alzheimers, any more than I’d defend the ridiculous “reforms” adopted today like curriculum pacing. I’m against stripping effective teachers of their rights to resist educational malpractice, and I suspect that “reformers” typically just want teachers who won’t talk back. And also, in almost every extreme case of incompetence where I’ve seen the system refuse to address the problem, age and disabbility law – not the union – is the key issue.

  15. Ponderosa says:

    This points to a larger issue: how we as Americans treat our older workers. There are many fifty-somethings in the private sector who get used up and spat out and forced to hustle for Walmart wages for their last decade or two in the workforce. Are we proud of this situation, Americans? Is this the best we can do?

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    “My life sucks and so should yours! I wouldn’t take that argument from *my* students.”

    A less charged argument might be, “You were promised other people’s money when you retired, and the people who made the promise can’t keep it. Sorry about that. The people who were expected to cough up the money for your retirement were not party to the original agreement and don’t feel terribly bound by it.”

    I think we are going to start seeing this a lot over the next 10ish years. At the local level, state level and federal level. It is going to be ugly.

    -Mark Roulo

  17. Charles R. Williams says:

    I don’t know where Robert Wright works but in Ohio a teacher with 35 years gets 2.5% times 35 times final average earnings plus medical benefits at age 58(or whenever). That’s 88% compared to making 100% minus the 10% retirement contribution minus 2% payroll tax. In Ohio he would not participate in Social Security. He can go to work in a private school at half pay and collect some Social Security at age 68.

    A deal’s a deal, right?

    Now does this kind of back-end loaded compensation system combined with tenure and the absence of merit pay and no consideration given to the market value of the teacher’s credentials make any sense? The only thing that makes it possible is the government monopoly on running state-funded schools along with collective bargaining for public employees.

    The way forward is clear: vouchers to end the monopoly and outlawing public sector unionism.

  18. Charles, I work in San Jose. It appears that you have a more generous system in Ohio.

    Since my house isn’t paid for and my son who is 16 is planning to go college and my wife doesn’t work, it looks like I’ll be boring children for another 6 years if I don’t have heart failure or if they don’t fire me for senility or something.

    The salary system doesn’t seemed geared right, but the bottom line is, you get what you are willing to pay for.

  19. Ponderosa, that’s an excellent point. The collapse of Greece, and the impending collapse of several other nations and several states all underline the same thing: you can’t pay people not to work. People live a lot longer, and therefore are going to have to work longer. You can’t sustain that if you’re ditching the older workers.

  20. Other people’s money? Are you not paying 14% into your pension? I also vested in social security, which I will not see, so I figure I’ve paid for my retirement x2 (should I live that long).

    Remember, when they set up this system, they counted on most teachers being young women who would get married within a few years, get pregnant, and be fired. Large numbers weren’t supposed to get to the top of the steps.

    I’m also sick to death of this not improving after 5 years. Leaving aside the issue of teachers getting better every year (and many do), how many others get better and better every year for 25 years? I mean, what more is there to do *better* after you’ve been a plumber or a software engineer or nurse after 10 years?

  21. Lightly seasoned, I should sure hope my physician has learned something in the last 25 years and can do better now than when he started his practice! 🙂

    And here’s a “for instance” of what could be learnt *better* or differently: Our school district now has a special “communication” room at the preschool for mostly non-verbal autistic kids. The teacher is around my age (40) and has learned how to work with PECs and other helps. And you know, I can’t defend every teacher out there, but THIS ONE is awesome. And she’s running this new room and using these new techniques with the children. The class is even designed autistic-friendly with chest-high walls dividing the sink area and play rooms so the kids aren’t overwhelmed looking at everything at once. There is even a sensory room.

    Anyway… I think a lot can be learned. I think experience can really make a difference. It doesn’t always. But it sure can! I wish all the schools in our district were like this preschool.


  22. The salary system doesn’t seemed geared right, but the bottom line is, you get what you are willing to pay for.

    Oh if only that were true but it isn’t since the point of a union is to sever any connection between what the job’s worth and what the worker’s paid.

    In the case of a union of government workers even the option to “make do” isn’t available since the essence of government is coercion; to do without the inevitably over-priced product of union labor.

    On a fixed income and the ever-rising property taxes that support the public education system forcing you out of your home? Too bad. Get out grandma and make way for someone who can pay.

    If it’s one thing that’s crystal clear it’s that we aren’t getting what we pay for as every charter school and voucher kid proves on a daily basis.

  23. allen, well said.

  24. Other people’s money? Are you not paying 14% into your pension?

    What planet are you on? In almost all defined contribution plans workers are contributing between 50% and 100%.

    I mean, what more is there to do *better* after you’ve been a plumber or a software engineer or nurse after 10 years?

    Don’t know about plumbing or nursing but as a software engineer if you don’t get better every year you are an unemployed software engineer.

  25. WOW. You know, I wish I could do the whole “not honoring promises” thing and still feel good about myself.

    It would’ve made things SO MUCH EASIER if when I started out as a yearbook advisor, I didn’t have to distribute the previous year’s book. Or paid the previous year’s bill. I could’ve bought some serious equipment with that money.

  26. Since I don’t have a master’s degree, I’m frozen on my pay scale. I’ll never again see another raise unless it’s a cost of living adjustment–unless and until I get a master’s degree.

    According to the major Sacramento newspaper, my pay is less than my district average *and* the state average, even though I’ve been teaching for 13 years.

    How well does a master’s degree correlate to teaching effectiveness?

  27. Darren, a master’s degree is just a hoop to jump through.

    What makes a better teacher is observation, feedback, and a decent work environment.

    I’m glad people are questioning the way teachers are paid.

    It probably needs to be reformed.

  28. bandit: since you feel free to tell me how lousy I am at my job, I will tell you: no, you are not “getting better every year.” You might think you’re ghopod’s gift to c++, but software engineers are not getting better all that time. If that were happening, computers would work a whole frickin’ lot better.

  29. Mark Roulo says:

    “…software engineers are not getting better all that time. If that were happening, computers would work a whole frickin’ lot better.”

    Individual programmers may not improve (my dad used to say that some people have one year of experience 30 times), but what a single programmer can get done is increasing over time, and has been increasing for quite some time.

    You can, for example, consider how possible it would be to write a very simple web browser (say, Mosaic 1.0) in 1970. It *was* possible … in theory. In practice, not so much. By the early 1990s it was possible for one person to write all/most of it.

    CS class projects from today could have been commercial products 30 years ago, except that they couldn’t have been created using 30-year old technology (both software and hardware).

    Some, possibly many/most programmers stop getting better after a few years on the job. But, in an industry that holds layoffs about every three years, I can tell you that these people are much more likely than the others to need to find a new job during one of these layoffs.

    Mark Roulo

  30. I’m not making any comment about how you do your job – nomb – I’m telling you a fact of life in the IT world – you increase your knowledge and skills or you go out the door