Monday, July 11, 2005


If you’re serious about wanting to make Nebraska’s K-12 education system the best in the country, you have to look at the No. 1 personnel issue: teacher compensation.

We’re stuck with an antiquated, union-devised seniority system, with stairstep raises based solely on how many years you’ve been breathing.

Even though it’s hard to find teachers qualified on the secondary level for certain specialties and skills, because of union rules and longtime practice, they can be paid no more than an elementary-level teacher with no particular specialization – so the regular market forces of supply and demand can’t establish fair salaries.

We can’t pay hiring bonuses to teachers willing to pull up stakes and move to a small town. We can’t pay “battle pay” to teachers willing to go into the inner city and work with the toughest challenges.

There’s no financial incentive for teachers to try anything new to improve student achievement, since teacher pay is totally divorced from student achievement. Excellence gets no more money than mediocrity. Therefore, the best people stay in the classroom for a few years, and then go up or out, for the most part. We’ll never have excellence if we keep setting our pay scales this way.

We all know that there are young teachers with bachelor’s degrees working for small salaries in small towns who are actually doing a better job than veteran teachers with master’s degrees or an Ed.D. in the big city. I’m not saying small-town teacher salaries ought to be on par with big-city salaries; of course, that would be silly because of big differences in the cost of living. But at least the quality of a job a teacher does ought to have some direct connection to what’s on that paycheck.

Now here’s a compilation of studies that shows that all the reasons we pay teachers more – because they have more continuing education, because they’re more experienced, etc. – are bunk.

An enterprising state senator ought to look at sponsoring a law next session that would establish a 21st Century pay system for Nebraska’s public-school teachers. The components:

-- Freedom of setting salaries would transfer from the union to elected school boards, with guidelines to protect teachers from arbitrary decisions, making K-12 education’s compensation system a lot more like the private sector.

-- Guidelines for value-added assessment would be created, so that the better a teacher’s kids do on standardized tests, the more pay they make.

-- Bonuses of any kind any school board wants to pay would be allowed, including hiring bonuses for people who had high GPA’s in college, have math or science expertise, or scored high on the teacher prep exam, Praxis.


What Makes a Teacher More Effective?

Q. Is there a definitive study that shows clearly what makes a teacher effective?

Teacher quality is the No. 1 in-school influence on student achievement. But according to a major policy report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, research shows that the things most of us THINK are trademarks of a quality teacher, aren’t necessarily true.

The study found that teachers with high levels of literacy – big vocabularies, good speaking and writing skills, high test scores – are much more effective than their counterparts who may have more experience, professional development and other seeming advantages.

Teachers who went to more selective colleges also are better in the classroom, as are teachers who are high-achieving, responsible, critical thinkers, organized, motivating, respectful, and loyal to their employers.

These findings signal that it is bad public policy to pay more money to teachers just for earning a master’s degree, since the evidence is clear that post-graduate education does not make a teacher more effective, and in fact, can have a slightly negative impact on student achievement.

Another widespread belief is that teaching experience equals quality. This isn’t true, after the gains of the first four or five years. It’s possible that the best teachers move up the pay scale into school administration positions or other careers, making it look as though teachers get better in the first few years, and then plateau. Bottom line: it is not wise to have stairstep pay scales based on seniority, the way we do.

Here’s a whopper: the most effective teachers aren’t even necessarily education majors. Teacher prep is nowhere near as important as other factors, including academic caliber, course work across a broad spectrum of disciplines, and the type of content-based experience and course work the teacher has had. The finding suggests that an end to requirements that teachers be graduates of teachers’ colleges is on the way.

Another whopper: teacher certification adds “some marginal value,” but not enough to justify the costs, including barring many good people from teaching for lack of certification. Answer: alternative certification programs that value nontraditional routes into teaching by capable people.

Homework: Download the report, “Increasing the Odds: How Good Policies Can Yield Better Teachers,” as a pdf from
www.nctq.org, and sign up for that group’s free bimonthly e-newsletter, Teacher Quality Bulletin.

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