Teacher Quality & Teacher Pay: How to Fix Schools

by JT McGee

Occasionally there is a highly controversial topic that I like to stick my nose in.

Improving schools and teacher pay are those kind of topics. Kevin at Thousandaire wrote about how higher teacher pay won’t improve education, so I thought I might respond.

If you’re easily offended, just stop reading. I plan on starting this off with a bang.

Teachers Lack in Logical Thinking Skills


Before you kill me, realize that this statement is true in the aggregate; we have never had so many teachers who underperform on standardized testing like the SAT. I’m not saying that all teachers are lacking between the ears, just that the mix is skewing less intelligent than it has in the past.

If you understand the following data points, you can understand a lot about the problems in the school system:

  • Graduates whose college entrance examination scores were in the top quartile were half as likely as those in the bottom quartile to prepare to teach (9 versus 18 percent). (Read: intellect and desire to teach are inversely related. The more intelligent one is, the less he or she will want to be a teacher.)
  • Teachers in the top quartile of scores were about one-third as likely as teachers in the bottom quartile to teach in high-poverty schools (10 versus 31 percent). (Read: Schools in impoverished areas are getting the least intelligent teachers. This explains part of the performance gap.)
  • Graduates in the top quartile of scores who did teach were twice as likely as those in the bottom quartile to leave the profession within four years (32 versus 16 percent). (Read: Intelligent people get better opportunities, and leave the school system.)

(Source: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c1/c1s5.htm )

Now, there are some obvious issues here. First, people hate talking about standardized testing – and I can understand. However, whatever bias standardized tests might have, I have a really hard time believing that people are in the bottom quartile should be in the top quartile, and people in the top quartile should be in the bottom quartile.

Basically, intellect and standardized test scores are much better correlated than…well, zero.

You will learn far more from smarter people than you will from people who aren’t so smart, just like you would be a better basketball player if you learned from NBA pros than if you trained with a bunch of 6 year olds. If knowledge is supposed to start with the teacher, and permeate through the student body, then starting with more intelligent teachers is a good place to begin our journey to improve schools, no?

So How Do You Fix It?

You pay teachers more, obviously!

Did that just come out of my mouth fingers? Yes. Ignore the fact that I’m not a big fan of big government, unions, or teachers; I say we should pay teachers more because I am a big believer in the idea that incentives matter.

I really do think we have to pay teachers more.

I do not think we need to pay the current batch of teachers more, however. Consider that teachers we have now were all hired at their incredibly low current incomes. If we’re going to pay more, we should get better quality. You wouldn’t expect Jim Beam to turn into Woodford Reserve if you threw a $20 bill at it. Likewise, a $40,000 teacher is still only worth $40,000, even if you slap another $60,000 on his or her paycheck.

Thus, we should pay teachers more under one precondition: we get to clean house. Any good organization has a minimum level of turnover. Turnover in the public education system is far too low. A little bit of fear does a lot to get people moving. A little bit of turnover insures we keep quality high.

Furthermore, I think we need to discuss some things that might be controversial:

  1. Math teachers are worth more than Art/PE teachers – Sorry, but it’s true. Mathematics builds logical thinking skills. If you do well in math and the sciences, you can think your way through pretty much every other subject. Supply and demand would dictate that we pay math and science teachers more than elementary art teachers. I’m not just picking on art or PE teachers – I could make this list much bigger, but see no need. The point is that some teachers are worth more than others. People who do not work in the school system realize this; teachers should too.
  2. Unions do not help – I feel bad for steelworkers who have to be put in the same unionized camp as teachers. Steelworkers actually do a dangerous job – and one could make the case they are more deserving of a union. Teachers do not need organized bargaining to “protect” them. I did go to a non-union school, though. No air conditioning (frequent ozone closings in August!), low pay, and no benefits – but boy were teachers begging to work there. The unions must really suck given the number of teachers who wanted to leave union work for non-union work.
  3. Pensions have to go – Pensions are financial weapons of mass destruction. They are also a source of perverse incentives. Vesting is silly. If a teacher wants to leave, don’t incentivize them to stay.
  4. “Business” classes need more oomph – I took “business” classes in high school. These amounted to learning a few different ways to type a business letter. If we can teach the sciences with some rigor, then “business” classes need some serious work. Serious. Work.

My suggestions are not radical. They are remarkably simple.

It can be summed up in an easy tl;dr: pay teachers more so we don’t have to bottom feed for intellect, cut incentives that only stand to keep bad teachers in, and get rid of collective bargaining that serves teachers at the cost of everyone else.

So who’s with me? $100,000 per year for teachers!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

PK October 3, 2012 at 10:55

No mention of the explosion in the number of administrators over the last decades? You could recapture a lot of money to pay teachers if you scaled back the layer of accumulated administration!


krantcents October 3, 2012 at 16:48

Although teacher pay needs to change, there is a lot more to it. Administrators need to support teachers in the classroom. Parents need to step up too. State budgets need to make education a priority. If all these things happen, you have a chance to actually improve education.


Financial Samurai October 4, 2012 at 11:43

I do think we need to pay teachers more.

Imagine the quality changes if teachers START at $70,000, and commonly make six figures.

Could be a huge boon to our future!


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