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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