Pay teachers more — and less

Pay some teachers more and others less, writes Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic.

Not all teaching jobs are alike. In fact, one could say there’s no such thing as “a teacher” at all. There are math teachers and English teachers. There are fourth grade teachers and high school teachers. There are gym teachers and…well you get my point. But while it might seem obvious, it’s also important. Because as two new studies out this week highlight, some kinds of teachers may simply be more influential on students’ educations and lives than others. The way we evaluate and pay them should reflect that.

The first study, an NBER working paper on The Long Term Impacts of Teachers, concluded that students assigned to a high value-added teacher any time between third and eighth grade were “more likely to go to college, were less likely to have children as teens, and made more money as adults” than their peers.

Good English teachers actually had a greater long-term impact on their students’ lives than talented math teachers. But they were also rarer. On the whole, math teachers were just more capable of raising their students’ test scores.

A second study, also an NBER working paper,  Do High-School Teachers Really Matter? concluded “only sometimes.”

Looking at data from schools in North Carolina, Northwestern Professor C. Kirabo Jackson found clear evidence that high school algebra teachers were able to regularly lift their students’ test scores. When it came to English teachers, though, the proof wasn’t there. Meanwhile, good high school teachers’ saw the amount of improvement in their students’ test scores vary much more from year to year than top elementary school teachers.When I spoke with Jackson, he said there were any number of explanations for his findings. Perhaps chief among them: English is considered a harder topic to “move the needle on,” especially in high school. Students learn language inside and outside the classroom.

“Performance bonuses might be more effective for math teachers, who are more likely to see results from their teaching, than English teachers, who might be facing an impossible task,” Weissmann writes. Or perhaps good English teachers should be paid more, because their job is so difficult.

Performance-pay schemes designed for elementary teachers, who have a decent chance at improving their students’ scores, may not be a fair way to evaluate high school English teachers, he adds.

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  1. Math and science teachers should get paid more. It’s called supply and demand.

    • If you have to use the word “should,” you’re not defining a supply and demand problem.

      • A monopoly obscures supply/demand factors. A government-supported monopoly ignores supply/demand factors.

  2. I imagine what BadaBing is referring to is the fact that there is so much hand-wringing over not having enough math/science teachers (and if something is in short supply, people are generally willing to pay more to secure one of these precious commodities), yet in the current pay structure a new hire in math/science would get the same wages as a new hire in home ec or whatever, regardless of the demand.

    In other words, if all the whiners are right and there aren’t enough math/science teachers, then they should be paid more – if the free market were allowed to function. Ditto with “high-quality” teachers (leaving aside the issue of what constitutes “high-quality” – for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that the term is definable and these teachers according to whatever definition exist.) Of course, the teachers’ unions take a dim view of free-market economics, so don’t expect Adam Smith’s invisible hand to intrude upon the classroom anytime soon.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Au contraire. Certified home ec teachers are extremely hard to find — far harder than math teachers. Under this plan, they’d be able to demand solid gold. Other hard-to-staff positions: high school reading specialists, business/marketing, industrial arts, and foriegn languages (even Spanish).

      • I didn’t realize that. All the handwringing about the dismal performance of American students in math and science kind of dwarfs the news about this crucial lack of certified home ec teachers. That puts things in perspective, I guess.

  3. If not for competent instruction in reading and writing, the math scores in later years would plunge.

    Do we really want to derail education discussions into competing visions of how to accurately measure teacher performance? I think one could argue until the next century about the best way to identify the best teachers.

    The theory that a little more money would improve the teaching workforce is only a theory. Given the terrible working conditions teachers in public schools face–primarily the lack of autonomy, and the lack of respect from administrators and politicians–a little more money won’t persuade someone who could become a lawyer to become a teacher.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Lack of respect for teachers by politicians? In what alternative universe? Politicians fall all over themselves saying how much they love education and what a great job so many teachers do. They sometimes talk about getting rid of the “bad teachers” but they never seem to think that would be difficult, so they must figure it’s a pretty small number.

  5. Cranberry says:

    Roger Sweeney, boilerplate political platitudes do not equal respect.

    Sending waves upon waves of new initiatives, unfunded mandates, and demands for new reports does not respect teachers. NCLB is only one of a long line of new orders from above.