How to Solve the Teacher Pay Puzzle

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Should teachers be paid more or less? The answer is: both.

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REUTERS/Julie Gordon

Arguments about how to pay public school teachers have an unfortunate habit of focusing on big, blanket solutions. Unions usually defend the status quo, which in most school districts means all teachers are paid based on their level of education and years on the job. Reform advocates prefer pay for performance, linking compensation to students' test scores. 

There's an important fact which gets lost in that dichotomy: Not all teaching jobs are alike. In fact, one could say there's no such thing as "a teacher" at all. There are math teachers and English teachers. There are fourth grade teachers and high school teachers. There are gym teachers and...well you get my point. But while it might seem obvious, it's also important. Because as two new studies out this week highlight, some kinds of teachers may simply be more influential on students' educations and lives than others. The way we evaluate and pay them should reflect that. 

The first study, which was has already earned fanfare from Nicholas Kristoff and Slate, looked at the power of "value added" teachers -- the superstars capable of regularly pushing up their classes' test scores. It found that young students who have those great teachers don't just fare better in school. They fare better in life. Students who were assigned to a value-added teacher anytime between third and eighth grade were more likely to go to college, were less likely to have children as teens, and made more money as adults than their peers.  

Those were the broad strokes. Deep inside the paper, the researchers pointed out a few noteworthy distinctions between educators in math and English. Good English teachers actually had a greater long-term impact on their students' lives than talented math teachers. But they were also rarer. On the whole, math teachers were just more capable of raising their students' test scores. 

The second important education study out this week carries a simple, impolite question for a title: "Do High-School Teachers Really Matter?" The answer, apparently, is: only sometimes. Looking at data from schools in North Carolina, Northwestern Professor C. Kirabo Jackson found clear evidence that high school algebra teachers were able to regularly lift their students' test scores. When it came to English teachers, though, the proof wasn't there. Meanwhile, good high school teachers' saw the amount of improvement in their students' test scores vary much more from year to year than top elementary school teachers. 

When I spoke with Jackson, he said there were any number of explanations for his findings. Perhaps chief among them: English is considered a harder topic to "move the needle on," especially in high school. Students learn language inside and outside the classroom. And instead of answering basic vocabulary questions like on grade school tests, students are suddenly asked to read and analyze Romeo and Juliet. Teaching them to do that is no easy challenge.

ONE-SIZE-FITS-NOBODY

What does that mean for policy? It's not crystal clear. On the one hand, performance bonuses might be more effective for math teachers, who are more likely to see results from their teaching, than English teachers, who might be facing an impossible task. On the other hand, one could argue that good English teachers should be paid more period, because their job is so difficult. 

Likewise, performance pay designed to improve first grade reading scores might not have much effect by high school, where the teachers may have less power to impact their students' scores. For all we know, test results might not be an appropriate way to measure an English teachers' success at all. 

In the end, these are hard, nuanced, issues, without obvious solutions. But the fact that we can even talk about them shows that a one-size-fits-all approach is grossly inadequate for encouraging the results we want from our teachers. And yet, that's what we're essentially stuck with. According to Rebecca Sibilia, fiscal strategy director for education reform group StudentsFirst, only half of U.S. states explicitly give schools the leeway to pay teachers more in "hard-to-staff" subjects, such as math. Eighteen states mandate that schools pay teachers more based on their level of education, and 21 require them to pay based on years of experience. It's not surprising then that, as I was told by Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, one of co-authors on the value-added teacher study, only a small fraction of school districts nationwide have adopted policies aimed at rewarding teachers in those "hard-to-staff" areas. 

Giving more schools the tools to recruit and keep teachers in subjects where there's a shortage of talent would be a reasonable start to a creating more appropriately flexible teacher pay system. But it's only a start. A grade school English teacher might change your life, but your math teacher is more likely to. A high school teacher can sometimes whip their students into shape, but there's a limit to what they can accomplish. Given these kinds of differences, why on earth should we pay teachers according to the same criteria? It's not necessarily about prioritizing reading over algebra, or chemistry over art (although it could be). It's about the need to find individual incentives that work. Because, in the end, there's no such thing as a regular, plain old "teacher." 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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