Journal Issue: Excellence in the Classroom Volume 17 Number 1 Spring 2007
In conclusion, we explore the policy implications of the evidence on how pay and working conditions affect teacher quality. At the outset of our discussion, we emphasize the crucial importance of teacher quality to student outcomes. A string of good teachers can help offset the deficits of home environment or push students with good preparation even farther.
As the relative pay of teachers has slipped over the past half-century, many observers have begun to call for increasing teachers’ overall pay. Improving teacher quality, they assert, requires making salaries competitive. Some even propose a “grand bargain.” The idea is that if districts raise overall pay—say, to the level of that of accountants—teachers and their unions will agree to more flexible pay arrangements and work rules.27 But holding all parties to such a bargain would be difficult, because wage setting is a political activity, not a market activity.
Simply raising all salaries would not only be expensive; it would also be inefficient. Although it could attract a new group of teachers into the profession and retain teachers who would otherwise leave, it would not necessarily improve the quality of teachers in the short term.28 Retaining teachers would be beneficial if they were the high-quality ones, but there is no strong reason to expect this to be the case. Although higher salaries appear to reduce the departure rates of teachers with graduate degrees—teachers who would thus have higher salaries in other professions— graduate degrees are not a good predictor of teacher effectiveness.29 Moreover, as noted, movers are on average less effective than stayers, at least for our large urban district.
It is possible, but by no means certain, that higher-quality movers would be more sensitive to salary. Higher salaries would certainly tend to increase the pool of potential teachers, but how that would affect overall teacher quality depends on the ability of principals and human resource teams to hire and, more important, retain the better teachers. Existing evidence, while not definitive, suggests that schools are not very effective at choosing the best teachers.30
With few exceptions, advocates of across-theboard salary increases pay too little heed to teachers’ classroom performance and to administrators’ personnel decisions. A better policy approach is to focus much more on student performance and administrator accountability, while increasing the supply of potential teachers. The idea is to loosen up on prescribed schooling and training requirements and focus on potential and actual effectiveness in the classroom, rather than “potential.”
Our position is simple: if student performance is the issue, policy should emphasize student performance. Researchers have found wide variation in teacher quality, even among teachers with similar education and experience. The variation appears to spring from differences in teacher skill and effort, inadequate personnel practices (particularly in retention but also in hiring) in many schools and districts, and differences in the number and quality of teachers willing to work, by subject and working conditions. That final source of variation may well justify substantial flexibility in pay schedules, promotion opportunities, and rigorous retention standards, and more should be learned about the consequences of differentiated pay and job classifications. The variation in skill and effort raises the most difficult set of issues for policymakers, because regulations, including but not limited to certification requirements, are not likely to get at the crux of the issue.
Rather, the evidence strongly suggests to us that principals and superintendents should make decisions about teacher hiring, retention, promotion, and pay based on their evaluation of teachers’ potential and actual effectiveness in raising student achievement and other outcomes, and not on a set of teacher characteristics such as education and experience. Principals do in fact know who the better teachers are.31 Their demonstrated ability to identify teachers at the top and bottom of the quality distribution could almost certainly be extended toward the middle ranges, particularly if good tests of student achievement are administered regularly. But other aspects of personnel management, including tenure, promotion, and pay decisions, leave tremendous room for improvement.32
Researchers to date have not found most performance- based teacher pay plans effective.33 But experiments in performance-based pay, though numerous, have been limited in the size and character of their incentive schemes.34 Of particular importance to the success of such pay programs, and to school effectiveness more generally, is the accountability of administrators. Unless those who make personnel decisions have a strong incentive, they are unlikely to make difficult, high-stakes choices regarding teacher pay, promotion, and employment. Such choices are often difficult and uncomfortable, and the path of least resistance is to grant tenure to virtually all teachers except in extreme cases and to avoid making decisions about compensation. Because such accountability is not common in education today, there is little to build on in implementing administrator accountability. A variety of institutional structures may provide appropriate incentives; schools nationwide are experimenting with different organizational arrangements, including charter schools, school report cards, merit schools, school vouchers, and public school choice.
Finally, our analysis of teacher mobility showed that salary affects mobility patterns less than do working conditions, such as facilities, safety, and quality of leadership.35 Compensation alone, it seems clear, is but a partial measure of the returns to work. But school policy discussions give remarkably little attention to working conditions. Research has linked teachers’ negative perceptions of working conditions with their exit from schools, but it has not closely tied poor working conditions to the quality of teachers in the classroom. An important agenda item, both for research and for policy, is to learn which working conditions are most important for teachers.