Thursday, March 12, 2009

History and Teacher Pay

Of course, as we should all know, very few things happen in a vacuum, particularly when it comes to public policy, education and funding. Joanne Jacobs has a post about education spending in Georgia, which is somewhat interesting, as far as it goes. But this comment struck a chord:
Joseph G. Martin Jr. of the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia says schools must spend more money on teacher pay now that educated women have other career options and on teaching students who aren’t fluent in English.
As I have argued before in this space (here and in a case study here) teacher pay is rarely as poor as some would have you think. Is teacher pay not quite what it should be for the role that teachers play in our society? I think there is a good arguement for that.

But the scale of teacher pay is subject to the past (and current) political and social forces. For example, as few as 50 years ago, most teachers were women because there were (honestly) fewer other professional opportunities for women. Whether that is right or wrong is the subject for a different time. Also at that time, if women did work outside the home, their income tended to be supplementary rather critical to household finances. (this is based on a married, two income family rather than a single woman working after college). Modern families often rely upon the teacher income as necessary rather than a luxury or supplemental income. Thus there is a drive (not without individual merits) to increase the pay for teachers. But such drives run counter to other forces, including general economic forces, that are exerting a downward pressure on teacher salaries.

Forces, like smaller class sizes, union contracts that focus on credentials and years of service, tend to exert downward pressures on salaries. Smaller class sizes requires more teachers, which means a larger labor pool which reduces the quality of teachers necessary to fill all the positions. More bodies means that the finite pool of resources to pay teachers is divided among a larger population. Additionally, in order to achieve mandatory step increses based on years of service, teacher contracts receive smaller pay raises for simple time in position, rather larger pay raises based on things like success (however measured) in a classroom. The consequence is that pay does not go up quickly for teachers who show good improvement in their own skills and knowledge in relation to their peers.

So the history of a large female labor pool in teaching no so long ago, coupled with the modern political and policy pressures has created a situation where teacher salaries simply cannot go much higher without a drastic re-think of how we manage our schools and employ our teachers.

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