On a recent school night, a group of teachers from the Memphis City Schools gathered for a screening of "American Teacher." The documentary follows four educators who work twelve-hour days to support their students and three jobs to support their families.
The teachers in the room know what that’s like; those are our stories too. One of us has been teaching in the Memphis City Schools for nine years and has never not worked at least one other job—teaching part-time time at the university, consulting, and until becoming a parent, a further twenty hours or more each week at Macy’s. These experiences are more common than not.
Teachers have long contended that we’re undervalued for our work; even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees that compensation reform is needed. But a controversial new study by the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation argues that teachers are actually overcompensated. The authors assert that when fringe benefits and job security are taken into account, teachers make about 52% more than intellectually comparable workers in other fields (using scores on standardized tests like the SAT as measures of cognitive ability).
Based on this assessment, it sounds like we’ve got it made. Indeed, every teacher has heard someone espouse the desire to teach because “it must be nice to have that summer vacation.” We just shake our heads and laugh. Good teachers, the kind we should want in our classrooms, put in a lot more hours and hard work than the barebones seven-hour day and 10-month year. Effective teachers work long after the school day is over, tutoring students, planning for the next day or grading papers. Every great teacher takes work home, too. And that summer vacation? For most of us, there are summer jobs to supplement our incomes, or professional development paid for out of our own pockets in order to grow as educators and boost our students’ achievement.
At the Memphis film screening, teachers agreed that the primary problem with the current compensation system isn’t starting salaries, but rather the lack of long-term growth. Indeed, this was pointed to as one of the primary factors behind teacher attrition. As far as we’re concerned, the salary debate shouldn’t be about too much versus too little; it should be about how compensation levels are determined over time, and what can be done to reward professional growth and excellence in an incredibly challenging, demanding, and utterly essential field. The teachers we should want in our classrooms are the ones who put in the hard work, not the ones who do the minimum, so we need a compensation system that encourages those excellent educators to stick around for the long haul.
Read more about the teacher salary debate. Our MCS colleague Jaime Hudgins blogged about it over at Harvard Educational Publishing Group.