Mar 09 2008

If you pay them, they will come: teacher pay, incentives, and results

Published by at 11:11 pm under Incentives,Labor Market,Resources,Wages

At Charter School, Higher Teacher Pay – New York Times

A New York charter school opening this year will start teachers’ pay at $125,000. The school’s creator and principal believes that quality teachers, not technology, are what will lead to results for students at his school.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.

“I would much rather put a phenomenal, great teacher in a field with 30 kids and nothing else than take the mediocre teacher and give them half the number of students and give them all the technology in the world,” said Mr. Vanderhoek, 31, a Yale graduate and former middle school teacher who built a test preparation company that pays its tutors far more than the competition.

This is certainly an interesting experiment. American schools have struggled for decades to improve results through the implementation countless programs and policies. Lately, one emphasis has certainly been on technology; but this article makes an interesting point: all the technology in the world won’t make a difference if it’s not in the hands of an excellent teacher.

The best basketball players in the NBA make millions more than the average ones. The most skilled doctors are rewarded with the highest salaries. Top lawyers earn hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars an hour while one from a third rate law school toils for $65,000 a year in a county prosecutor’s office. So what’s different about teaching? Why do all teachers in a particular district with a particular number of years experience get paid the same salary? Could you ever imagine all the lawyers in a particular city making identical salaries? The idea is absurd. Clearly the top law firms will pay for the top lawyers, which in turn enables that law firm to achieve the best possible results for its clients.

Yet the vast majority of teachers in America find themselves stuck in a system rooted in an outdated belief in equity, egalitarianism, fairness, whatever you want to call it, where pay is based not on talent, ability, skill, expertise, and all the attributes that determine one’s pay in a competitive labor market like medicine, law, and professional sports; rather the older you are and the more time you’ve “served”, the greater your financial reward. Is it a coincidence that America is known for its cutting-edge medical field, its skilled litigators, and world-class professional athletes. Could someone describe to me the reputation of American public schools? No? I understand, it’s a depressing subject.

In economics we teach the importance of incentives, which when used properly encourage individuals to improve their human capital in as many ways as possible. In other words, if I am rewarded for excellence, I will strive for excellence in my profession. The only incentive in education, it seems, is to grow old and gray, because that’s how I will make more money. Easy for teachers whose only goal is to make it to retirement, right? Without a doubt. Effective for students in a society falling ever further behind other countries in academic achievement? Hardly.

Ironically, some of the teachers most skilled in the application of new technologies and versed in the latest pedagogies are those who grew up learning with those technologies in their own education in a constructivist, student-centered environment. In other words, the youngest, most tech-savvy, who just happen to earn the lowest salaries (practically subsistent in some parts of the country).

Mr. Vanderhoek may be proven wrong. Perhaps it is more technology, more standardized tests, more powerful teachers’ unions, that America’s children need to begin achieving the results that Indian, Chinese, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese, even European students are achieving in the maths, sciences, and other subjects. But if he’s right, then $125,000 (2.5 times the national average for public school teachers) may prove to be just what’s needed attract the kinds of teachers that can achieve results. What if this school does succeed? Will it matter? Or will America’s public schools forever reward teachers not for performance and qualifications, but simply for getting older?

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About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “If you pay them, they will come: teacher pay, incentives, and results”

  1. Mollieon 10 Mar 2008 at 3:49 am

    The power of Incentives is probably the first thing I learned in my economics class. And it's no wonder, since incentives are all around us, from a pay raise when you excell at work to that little [or big] piece of candy you allow yourself after a long day at the office [or for us students, school].

    The teaching world is a bit different – the only incentive many teachers seem to have is to act as attentive and excellent teachers is, sadly enough, not enough motivation for lots of them. We all know that teaching is a pretty much thankless job [would you rather pay to see a professional baseball game or an english class?], so why not give teachers a boost to perform better? Or at least a reward for those who currently go above and beyond to inspire us?

    Doing a job the longest does not mean you'll be the best at it, despite the experience. So why don't we already pay our teachers based primarily on merit? Because we place so little value on our educational system, yet still expect our students to excell in their classes and achieve high test scores. So pay them a bit extra, why not? Those who deserve it will get more for the time they put into their classrooms, and those who don't will receive, instead, incentive to begin going that extra mile, even if it is for the extra buck, and not purely for the satisfaction of seeing a child succeed. When our childrens' futures are at stake, how mch of an argument is there?

  2. Sam Youngon 10 Mar 2008 at 4:11 am

    I'm pretty sure there is little debate over whether good teachers should be paid more than bad ones, the problem is, how do you ensure that these $125,000 positions will only be filled by good teachers. These are very high paying teaching jobs, so there will be no shortage of people wanting the positions and any student knows, there IS a shortage of good teachers. How can one (such as the principal of this new charter school)determine who is a good teacher?

    There was recently an article in "Time" (major news magazine) discussing a similar system that is used in public schools in some states in the U.S. They judge their teachers by standardized test scores of students, is that an accurate assessment?

    If the principal is successful in only finding good teachers, then it will be a great thing, the best teachers will finally be rewarded, but isn't it often the best teachers who teach for less money, because they are the ones who feel rewarded not only by money, but by helping students and making a difference?

  3. Lauren Tayloron 10 Mar 2008 at 4:55 am

    Here's the problem I see with paying the "good teachers" more money: each student has their own idea of what makes a good teacher. I personally believe that a good teacher is one that keeps a relaxed environment in the classroom and has a somewhat personal relationship with their students. Less tension equals better work on my part. I also tend to like teachers who have more in-class work than homework. I find I retain the information better that way. However, my idea of a good teacher may be the exact opposite of someone else's. There's no way to really determine who deserves the "good teacher" pay raises. In sports, you're either good, or not. There's not really a middle ground. But in teaching, there's nothing BUT a middle ground.

  4. jameson 11 Mar 2008 at 4:31 pm

    Lauren says that each student has his or her own idea of what makes a good teacher but that is not at all what the research shows. Some insightful meta-analyses have been done on SET's, the student evaluation of teachers, that suggest there are consistant and recurring characteristics of good teaching. My own sense after teaching both at the university and secondary levels is that the 125,000 will attract all kinds of teachers, but the wise recognize the wise. 1) advanced degrees in the select subject matter (for high school), 2) ignore teaching credentials; none of the best schools have ever required them. 3)measureable experience. All the studies show that teacher effectiveness runs like a bell curve over the course of a career. a 5 year minimum is what I would require. These elements would be the sine quo non. After that a sensible interview would reveal a lot…he will get the good teachers.

  5. Shanaon 12 Mar 2008 at 11:57 am

    It's not completely on the teachers (especially at a high school level) whether student's testing scores go up or not. You have to take into account that some children do not want to learn and will not bother trying to score well on these tests. It may be up to the teacher to find a way to motivate these students, but it's also up to the student to be willing to learn. In my opinion though, if certain kids don't wan't to learn, don't bother with them. Let them have it their way and see if they like it.

    Back to the point, though, paying teachers more is not going to fix this and it probably won't make any of the teachers better at what they do.

  6. Erinon 14 Mar 2008 at 12:02 pm

    Having been educated in the US public schooling system my entire life so far, I think offering a $125,000/year incentive to teachers would be a great idea…in theory. One would think offering more money to the best teachers would solve the problem of having so many "bad" teachers, but I'm not so sure it would work. Some of the best teachers I have had really are not in the profession for money, they are in it because they enjoy teaching children and sharing their knowledge (or at least thats what they tell us, and judging from their personalities I believe it). So would offering them more money really be useful? I dont think so. I think the only thing it will do is help to group all the "good" teachers together in one area, I mean it's not like you can just fire all the bad teachers, they have to go somewhere because kids in places where $125,000 is too much to pay a teacher still need to be educated. Sure, this idea might raise a region of the country's test scores, but I believe the US as a whole would remain the same.

    I agree with Shana about part of the effort coming from the student. The US is one of the only (or only, I'm not really sure?) countries to require education for all. This means that kids who already know they don't want to go to college have to go through school, and I'm sure they aren't going to try very hard if they know they already have their future set as a mechanic, hairstylist, etc.

    I think one of the ways to make this plan work would be to reduce the amount of kids being educated in addition to offering somewhat of an incentive to teachers. This would mean fewer students that need to be educated, which would mean less teachers needed, and then, this somewhat survival of the fittest idea would work.

  7. Christina Huon 15 Mar 2008 at 10:40 pm

    I really respect Mr. Vanderhoek for what he's trying to do. Obviously, nearly everyone's realized by now that there is a problem with the US education system- or, rather, the kids in the system. So, so much depends on the students. You can put a brilliant student and a crappy teacher into a mediocre classroom and, if that student is truly brilliant, she will surpass the teacher on her own. It's a good idea, though, but the money will attract money-mongers as well as great teachers who are genuinely interested in educating the next generation.

  8. Mondon 16 Mar 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Technology is nothing more than a tool used to enhance learning. The most important factor is still the quality of the teachers. Does a few laptops and projectors really make such a difference? I believe not. I find it unfair that all teachers are paid the same salary even though some teachers are simply better at their jobs than others.

    I agree with Shana, motivation does play a huge role in learning. Some people simply refuse to learn and teachers cannot really do much about that.

  9. serenatuon 16 Mar 2008 at 3:45 pm

    I agree with Mr. Vanderhoek. What's really needed to help student succeed in schools isn't computers, or those new advanced technologies. An excellent teacher is way more important, and useful than new technology. New laptops and smart boards, even though they sound nice, and perfect, but what are the use of those tools for students? Teachers can give students life-experiences, and stuff that is way more important that looking at the power point and just copying everything down. I think teachers should be paid accordingly to their ability, not their ages.

  10. kevinchiuon 16 Mar 2008 at 4:19 pm

    That's an interesting experiment.. Sure, it'll attract more and more people into the field of teaching, but does that mean an immediate supply of good teachers, which is pretty much different for everyone, will suddenly rise and be available? I think increasing the wage will give an incentive for people to become teachers, as opposed to having a surplus of great teachers appear out of nowhere and go teach. Maybe this school will attract better teachers, but I mean if they're great teachers, I'm sure they're teaching somewhere; thus, the school's basically taking other teachers away from other schools.. It's very much like how the supply of labor doesn't rise, at full employment, because of an increase in wage; the higher wage merely attracts other workers from other firms in the same industry. Therefore, I don't think this is an effective method to be employed on a national scale. However, I do think that this might bring this particular school better teachers for the reasons mentioned above.

  11. T. Sunon 16 Mar 2008 at 6:13 pm

    I find that the introduction of technology into our school is mostly detrimental. First of all, I feel that the helpful aspects of technology aren't being realized because of the incorrect approach. I feel that stuff like each student keeping their own blogs or whatever only retards learning.

    However, there are some great examples of technology that helps learning, like for example the econ wiki. Rarely do I find technological stuff in our school to be more beneficial than detrimental.

  12. judychenon 16 Mar 2008 at 10:55 pm

    I think money will not attract the good teachers but teacher who want high salaries. Because you cannot judge if he/she is a good teacher only by the interview. I think the main way to really make a change in America's education is to motivate students to study, and train teachers when they are at universities. Teacher who are receving high salaries does not mean he/she is a good teacher.

  13. claire425on 17 Mar 2008 at 2:12 am

    After the school chooses the "appropriate" teachers after raising their salaries, the school should make a policy to fire teachers when they teach poorly. Then, due to the raise in income, teachers who are highly motivated would be in school, and the school will be in a better situation.

  14. Kristie Chungon 17 Mar 2008 at 7:15 pm

    I think paying teachers more money to teach will not make them better teachers. In order for teachers to be good at teaching, and be able to motivate their students, they have to teach for intrinsic reasons, and not for extrinsic reasons aka money. Although higher salaries would attract the teachers to teach at that school, it is not certain that those teachers are good. Teachers are essential to a student's education, and to improve the level of education in America, the quality of teachers will need to improve. Therefore in that aspect, Mr. Vanderhoek has got it right.

  15. Kristie Chungon 17 Mar 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I think paying teachers more money to teach will not make them better teachers. In order for teachers to be good at teaching, and be able to motivate their students, they have to teach for intrinsic reasons and not for extrinsic reasons aka money. Although higher salaries would attract the teachers to teach at that school, it is not certain that those teachers are good. Teachers are essential to a student's education, and to improve the level of education in America, the quality of teachers will need to improve. Therefore in that aspect, Mr. Vanderhoek is right.

  16. Rebecca Sungon 18 Mar 2008 at 5:41 pm

    I agree with Kristie; if teachers were extrinsically motivated to teach students, once the money is gone, they'll probably teach as well then. Even though a higher salary does provide an incentive for teachers, money does not replace a teacher who is passionate about teaching and most importantly, what they are teaching. I think most of the time, the teachers who actually WANT to teach and educate students are better educators than those who do not care.

  17. Jo Loon 18 Mar 2008 at 5:42 pm

    I think paying teachers more money will help draw out the good ones and keep them in the long run. Part of the reason why many students in America fall behind their peers in other countries in core subjects such as math and science is because of the lack of teachers who know their material and want to help the students learn. Many times teachers won't care if the students are actually learning, they're just there to get through the day and pick up their paycheck. If schools pay teachers based on their ability to teach, then I think schools will have a much easier time of retaining the best.

  18. Jeff Yeon 18 Mar 2008 at 7:55 pm

    I think this attempt is a worthy one. If all teachers, skilled and unskilled, are paid the same, then there is obviously no incentive to get better. Only by seperating the best from everyone else will other teachers strive to be all that they can be. The salary that is offered by this school is very unique, in that it is much higher than what most teachers earn. I can imagine that the best teachers are finally given a chance to be rewarded for their hard work, devotion, and skill.

  19. calebon 18 Mar 2008 at 9:24 pm

    This is the right strategy. Higher pay invites more competition amongst teachers. It doesn't matter if a teacher enjoys teaching or not, if s/he is effective, then thats all that matters. The end result is what is being sought after here.

  20. Trevor Sunon 18 Mar 2008 at 10:28 pm

    I guess this strategy would work in creating incentives for teachers, but wouldn't it attach all of them instead of just the skilled ones? Plus, how do you know if a teacher is effective or not? They must have some kind of filtering process but still it might be biased against some.

  21. jenniferchoion 19 Mar 2008 at 7:39 am

    Yes i also think that higher pay will bring more competition among teachers, and it will naturally bring better teachers than there were before. As the result, the schools will have teachers who are effective in teaching and will help increase the US public education level.

  22. Tarynon 19 Mar 2008 at 11:21 am

    Wow. This question created a lot of attention. In many ways I agree and disagree with higher incentives for better teachers. First of all we know that as a fact higher incentives draw more skilled workers and in the case of teacher I think higher salaries would bring in many skilled teachers and many teachers who are experts on their subjects. One problem is that many times teachers with an expert in their subject may not be good teachers whatsover, just knowledgable people. Also, it is more difficult to compare basketball players and doctors with teachers. "They" have a public who pays to watch them/hire them while teachers are not paid by the community to work. Atleast in America we have taxes but public school is free (private school is not however and can destroy my argument). Where will the money come from? I don't think the American school system would be able to raise enough money for such high salaries for every teacher. But I guess we will just have to wait and see.

  23. MN MICROon 23 Nov 2011 at 5:58 pm

    I SEE A VERY FUNDAMENTAL ROADBLOCK TO THIS GREAT CHANGE IN THE PROFFESSION OF TEACHING. I AGREE WITH THE ENTIRE ARTICLE…..EXCEPT THE UNASKED QUESTION ABOUT WHERE ALL THE NEW REVENUE FROM PAYING FOR BETTER TEACHERS WILL COME FROM. AS SALARIES FOR U.S. TEACHERS HAVE STAGNATED RECENTLY AND THE PERCEPTION OF EDUCATION TURNED VERY NEGATIVE ARE THE U.S. TAXPAYERS REALLY GOING TO SUPPORT A DOUBLING+ OF THE COST TO EDUCATE OUR COUNTRY??

    THE POLITICAL SYSTEM WILL NEVER EMBRACE THIS REGARDLESS OF CHARTER SCHOOL TEST SCORES. THE CURRENT MANTRA IS SIMPLY: PAY THEM LESS AND DEMAND FROM THEM MORE. MAKES ME WONDER IF ECONOMICS EXPERIENCE IS VERY COMMON IN WASHINGTON.