Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
How best to attract and retain good teachers is perhaps the most important policy issue in education today. Few observers dispute the premise that good schools require good teachers in the classrooms. But agreement about how public policy can best facilitate the hiring and retention of effective teachers is far more elusive. In this article we examine aspects of the teacher labor market to shed light on how salaries and working conditions affect the quality of instruction.
Our underlying presumption is that the proof of high-quality instruction is in the pudding— teacher quality must be addressed in terms of how much students actually learn. In other words, teacher quality should be measured by the contribution of a teacher to student learning, typically measured by test scores, and not by characteristics such as possession of an advanced degree, experience, or even scores on licensing examinations.
Assessing how salary and working conditions affect teaching quality is complicated. Because traditionally accepted measures of teacher quality, such as experience and years of schooling, are only weakly linked with student achievement, they are not reliable proxies for effective teaching. An attractive alternative is to use student test score gains as measures of teacher effectiveness. While recent accountability systems have increased the availability of such test scores, researchers must still sort out how much measured student achievement reflects the performance of teachers and how much it reflects family and other influences.
Likewise, because objective measures of working conditions, such as administrator and parental support, safety, and ease of commuting, are lacking, researchers frequently use student demographic characteristics as proxies. As an alternative they sometimes rely on teacher self-reports, which have their own drawbacks. Teachers’ perspectives, for example, may differ systematically by community type—cutting class or theft by students may not be regarded in the same way by all teachers—and views about working conditions may be influenced by their own job performance, making these measures unreliable.
Finally, certain aspects of the current market for teachers—including licensing restrictions, tenure, and various contractual requirements— play a role in how salary and working conditions affect the quality of instruction. For example, an increase in teacher salaries might have one effect on student achievement in the current market, with its significant barriers to entry, such as certification requirements, and quite a different effect in a more open market.
We begin by surveying variations in salaries and working conditions in U.S. public schools by region and community type. We also chart changes over time in how teacher salaries compare with salaries in other occupations. We then focus on teacher turnover, describing how teachers move from school to school, examining how salaries and working conditions change when teachers move and whether turnover affects teacher quality and student achievement. We move on to consider more generally how salary and working conditions affect the quality of instruction. We review research on how teacher experience and education, the primary determinants of compensation for public school teachers, affect student outcomes and then turn to direct evidence on how salary and working conditions affect student achievement. Having surveyed the evidence, we examine its implications for teacher policies. We conclude that the best way to improve the quality of instruction would be to lower barriers to becoming a teacher and to link compensation and career advancement more closely with performance.