It’s generally understood that teacher salaries are too low. Yet teacher salaries make up the bulk of education expenses in the united states, creating quite a conundrum. If teachers are paid more, education costs will skyrocket. Most states and local governments will not be able to afford it. Yet at the same time, can anybody really afford the hidden cost of low teacher pay?
The first thing to know about teacher pay is that it does vary from state to state. Some of the worst performing states and districts in the nation have the highest teacher salaries. So it’s not fair to suggest that there is a dollar-for-dollar correlation between high teacher pay and positive educational outcomes.
The reasons for this phenomenon are manifold. First and most obviously, the cost of living varies in different parts of the country. A first year teacher in New York City, making over $40,000 a year, may not be much better off than a first year teacher in Mississippi, making less than $20,000. The money simply doesn’t go as far in New York. So it’s important to keep in mind that teacher salaries do and should vary according to the local cost of living.
Another reason we see poor correlation between teacher salaries and educational outcomes is that not all teaching work is equal. The work that a teacher does in a failing Bronx high school might not compare at all to the work done by a teacher in a well-run, middle-class suburban school, in terms of workload. Teaching at-risk children is extremely hard work. One unfortunate thing about teacher salaries is that they do not reflect this difference. Teachers who work with the most difficult students under the most challenging of circumstances get paid the same salaries as those who work in much more favorable conditions.
So is it fair to say that paying teachers more money will not make a difference and will not improve education? Not exactly. Teachers do need to have higher salaries. It will improve education in America if they do. And the logic is quite simple. Higher teacher salaries will attract more qualified individuals to the field. Administrators will be able to hire from the cream of the crop, rather than settling for candidates who weren’t qualified to do much else.
Furthermore, higher teacher salaries will help retain the best and most effective teachers at the highest-need schools. Right now, about half of all new teachers leave the public school system within five years. How many bright, eager and competent teachers have been driven away by the low salary? Let’s end the bleeding away of good teachers, and finally pay them what they are really worth.