Saturday, May 28, 2005

Millionaire Teachers

Matt Miller speaks up for the hardest-working government employees: teachers.

Researchers agree that one of the best things government can do to help poor children is raise teacher quality. Yet poor schools today attract the bottom third of the college class. Why? Compare a typical urban district with its affluent suburbs nearby. When the suburbs (1) pay more, (2) have better working conditions and (3) serve easier-to-teach kids who bring fewer problems to school, it’s no surprise that the best teachers gravitate to the best suburban schools.

This isn’t to diminish the many great teachers who work their hearts out for poor kids in trying conditions. But it’s these teachers who’ve told me with passion how mediocre many of their colleagues are. We’re essentially relying on missionaries to staff schools in poor neighborhoods. How many more years have to pass before we admit that the missionary “plan” isn’t working?


The answer is to think bigger. Consider this “grand bargain.” We’d raise salaries for teachers in poor schools by 50 percent. But this offer would be conditioned on two major reforms. First, the unions would have to abandon their lock-step pay scale so that we could raise the top half of performers (and those in shortage fields like math and science) another 50 percent. Second, the unions would have to make it much easier to fire the worst teachers, who are blighting the lives of countless kids.

In many big districts, salaries start around $40,000 and top out, after 25 years, around $75,000. Under this plan, starting teachers would earn $60,000. The top performing half of teachers (and the shortage specialties) would average $90,000. The best teachers would earn up to $150,000. With the amount they could save, the best teachers of poor children could retire with $1 million in the bank.

A move on this scale would change how teaching is viewed by college students who are deciding how to spend their lives. We’d finally be acknowledging the massive “subsidy” schools lost once women were free to enter other professions after the 1970’s. And there are environmental benefits, too; if a young couple thinks they could jointly earn $250,000 as teachers, we may well end up with two fewer lawyers!

In one way or another, I’ve been a part of the teaching profession all my life — first as a student, of course, then teacher, counselor, volunteer, and administrator. No one I know got into the business to make a fortune. In fact, one of the reasons the conservatives complain about a “liberal bias” in education is because people who are attracted to the teaching profession aren’t money-grubbing capitalists, which, to the right-wing mindset, automatically makes you a lefty. But I also know that if we paid teachers twice as much and spent half as much money on schools as we do on the Pentagon, schools would be palaces and people — even conservatives — would be flocking to teaching fairs, and we would have the best results. It’s all about the kids, and who can say no to them?