What should teachers earn?
Chris Wittle, the CEO of Edison Schools, has a new book out called "Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education." One of the most quoted sections in the book deals with teacher pay. Wittle calls for a performance-based pay system for teachers that would give the best teachers up to $130,000 a year; and would double the average teacher salary to $90,000.
Few people go into teaching to get rich, but what's interesting to me is that the $130,000 figure is presented as a reach. There are teachers making that much -- and more. I came across this list of the top teacher salaries in Illinois, topped by one Ronald Kniaz who is earning over $170,000 for 10 months work a year (and in districts like New Trier, Illinois, the average salary is already over $80,000):
Of course, if you click on these teachers' names for the profiles, you'll see that most have over 30 years experience. The difference between Wittle's approach, and the one some Illinois districts already have in place, is the merit vs. seniority system.
On its face, pay for seniority seems fair -- and generally, teachers get better the longer they teach. But not necessarily. I recall one awful teacher I had for social studies in 8th grade. He put lists of questions and answers on the board; we were to copy them, and then we were tested on them. The big learning process was that the first quarter we got 100% of the answers to the questions, the second quarter 75%, third quarter 50%... This man had been teaching for 30 years. Every year he earned more, and he was there for good, sitting at his desk doing nothing except policing the classroom as we copied whatever was on the board. That same year I had a charismatic English teacher who spent hours on nights and weekends reading and marking up the short stories he assigned us. He left teaching after a few years in part because he couldn't make any money in it. Frankly, if the school had fired the social studies teacher, doubled the English teacher's salary, and then let us watch film strips during the social studies hour, we would have learned more.
But judging merit, as teachers will tell you, isn't easy. It can be subjective. It takes a lot of time. That doesn't stop many companies from judging merit when determining bonuses, but it is true. How could school districts design a merit-based pay system that would be fair? Judging from my experience in 8th grade, the seniority system isn't fair -- to the kids.