getting what you pay for

Want more young people to aspire to become teachers? Try paying teachers more

What teachers are paid is usually a function of local budgets and politics — not cutting-edge research. But there’s building evidence that higher teacher pay helps encourage people to enter and stay in the classroom.

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, examines interest in teaching across different countries, including the United States.

“In countries where teacher salaries are higher, 15-year-old students are more likely to expect to work as teachers,” the researchers Seong Won Han, Francesca Borgonovi, and Sonia Guerriero conclude, using data from the OECD, the group that administers the PISA exam, which tests 15-year-olds worldwide to evaluate education systems.

The relationship is strong: an increase in teacher pay by 50 percent is associated with a 75 percent increase in high schoolers’ likelihood to say they plan to go into teaching.

This comes as fewer American high school students want to become teachers, according to a 2016 analysis by the ACT, the college-entrance testing company. Policymakers may be particularly nervous about this trend in light of the decline in recent years of college students enrolling in teacher preparation programs.

A major caveat to the study, which is consistent with prior work, is that the results are correlational, meaning the study can’t prove that better salaries cause more high schoolers to become interested in teaching. Moreover, comparing educational systems across countries — with widely varying cultures and contexts — is inherently tricky. The report also shows that other factors beyond salary — like how well-respected teachers are — are related to interest in the career.

Still, the findings generally match up with research from the United States showing that teacher salary matter a great deal.

Increased pay, including through bonuses, tends to get teachers to stay in the job longer. There is less evidence on how compensation affects teacher recruitment, but what exists is generally positive. Higher pay may be particularly important for keeping math and science teachers — often areas of shortage — since they tend to be able to earn higher salaries outside teaching.

One study found that a New York City charter school that pays teachers $125,000 salaries led to notable gains in student achievement (although the analysis couldn’t show whether the hefty paychecks were the cause).

Of course, significant debate exists on whether to base pay on performance and how to distribute retirement benefits. More generally, researchers disagree on whether teachers are over or underpaid, and how exactly to determine this.

The OECD data suggests that teachers are paid substantially less than in most other countries, as a percentage of per capita GDP. A more fine-grained analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that, counting benefits and hours worked, teachers are paid about 11 percent less than similarly educated workers.

Comparisons are challenging: another recent study found that although high school teachers are underpaid, elementary and middle school teachers earn somewhat more than comparable professionals.

But asking teachers if teachers are over or underpaid may be the wrong question — as well as an impossible-to-answer one — according to some researchers. The right question, argued the University of California, Santa Barbara economist Dick Startz in a recent blog post, is, “Are we attracting and retaining enough great teachers?”

“My view,” he continued, “is that we’re getting lots of great teachers, but we’re not getting nearly as many as we need. If you agree, then you should want higher teacher salaries.”

teacher trap

America’s teachers don’t move out of state much. That could be bad for students.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Certification rules can make moving to a new state a serious hassle for teachers.

That might explain a recent finding: Teachers are significantly less likely to move between states than others with similar jobs — and past research suggests that students suffer as a result.

The study, which uses national data from 2005 to 2015 and was released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, appears to be the first to document how frequently teachers move states compared to those in other occupations.

Teaching stands out: Relative to jobs requiring a similar level of education, teachers were 45 percent less likely to move to different state, but only 5 percent less likely to move a long distance within a given state. This suggests that teachers aren’t averse to moving — there are just strong incentives to not cross state lines.

That “may limit the ability of workers to move to take advantage of job opportunities,” the researchers write. That’s consistent with research on the Oregon–Washington border, where teachers were more likely to move long distances in their own state than shorter distances across the state line.

Winning permission to teach in a new state sometimes requires re-taking coursework and taking new certification exams. There may be good reasons for that — for instance, states that are particularly attractive to teachers may want to maintain especially high standards but it’s also a complicated process to navigate.

“Web-surfing became my life, through hard-to-navigate state department of education websites and portals that looked like something I had created back in my college sophomore computer science class in 1998,” wrote one teacher in a recent piece for Education Week, describing her efforts to meet new requirements after moving from Florida to Massachusetts.

This matters because the rules may keep teachers who move from re-entering the classroom altogether. A national survey found that among people who had left teaching but were considering re-entering the classroom, 40 percent identified “state certification reciprocity” as a key factor in their consideration.

That, in turn, affects students. One analysis has found that schools near state borders perform consistently worse on standardized tests — perhaps because certification and other rules limit the pool of potential teachers. Research has also shown that teachers perform best when they find a good “fit” with a school, and certification rules may make that harder.

Certification rules are not the only factor in play. Teachers’ decisions may also be influenced by retirement plans that aren’t easily portable and rules that would require them to give up seniority and tenure protections when they move.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The study finds that people in other professions, like medicine, are freer to move and have certifications that easily transfer between states. But the idea of a national “bar exam” for educators hasn’t ever gained traction.

A handful of states have agreed to accept one another’s certifications, and a provision in ESSA would allow federal money to go toward the efforts.

As for the teacher, Megan Allen, who struggled with Massachusetts’ rules — and had 10 years of experience and a National Board certification? She left public education as a result. “I didn’t feel like I was valued for any of the expertise that I had earned, worked hard for, and proved,” she wrote.

war on teachers?

When union protections disappear, poor schools lose teachers, new research finds

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski speaks with a student at Detroit's Bethune Elementary-Middle School.

Is a “war on teachers” driving them out of the classroom?

In many states, teachers and their unions have made that case, noting that it’s become tougher to earn tenure, bargaining rights have been diminished, and more of their evaluations are based on test scores.

A new study tries to find out whether the two — recent policy changes and teacher turnover — are really linked. Its findings make it the latest in a handful of recent studies to suggest that the weakening of teachers unions and job protections hits already-struggling schools the hardest.

Focusing on Michigan, the researchers find that a spate of teacher-focused policy changes passed in 2011 and 2012 did not cause an overall increase in teacher turnover. But at schools with lower test scores or more students in poverty, teacher churn jumped.

This, the researchers say, raises an important concern: “That teacher labor market reforms like those implemented in Michigan may disproportionately impact the poorest schools and school districts — those already facing staffing constraints.”

How that turnover affects students is not always clear. In general, teacher turnover has been linked to worse student outcomes, but it can be beneficial if new teachers are better than the ones they replaced. In this case, the researchers don’t know whether teachers left voluntarily or involuntarily, or how effective those teachers were.

The paper, released through Michigan State’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, examines a series of laws passed in that state in 2011 and 2012. Those laws introduced a new teacher evaluation linked to student test scores, lengthened the time before a teacher could attain tenure, prohibited districts from prioritizing teacher seniority when making layoff decisions, and instituted “right-to-work” provisions that blocked districts from requiring teachers to join unions.

In the years after the laws were passed, teacher turnover spiked. But the researchers say this doesn’t show the impact of the laws, since other factors — like the recession and its after-effects — may have driven those changes.

So to isolate cause and effect, the researchers compared districts where the new laws went into place right away to those that didn’t see changes for a few years. (Some districts had union contracts that were allowed to be maintained until they expired.)

Teacher turnover looked similar in both groups of districts, indicating that the policy changes weren’t what made the difference. Turnover rates for teachers also mirrored those for other school professionals, like counselors, social workers, and psychologists, who researchers assume were less affected by the changes.

“This suggests that the reforms labeled part of a ‘war on teachers’ may not depress teacher morale to the point where they result in a large loss (at least in the short run) of teachers from the profession,” the study says.

(One complicating factor: If everyone in schools, not just teachers, felt like there was a broad-based “war on schools” — and that was true in all districts — this study would not capture the laws’ true influence.)

But the researchers find something different when focusing on disadvantaged schools — both those with more poor students and those with lower test scores — which often have the hardest time keeping teachers. The new laws increased teacher turnover in high-poverty districts from 6.5 percent to about 8 percent each year.

The latest research joins recent research that tries to identify the impact of weakening teacher job protections. One found that gutting unions in Wisconsin substantially reduced student test scores; another showed that limiting teacher tenure in Louisiana led to a spike in teacher turnover. Both papers found the impact was largest on low-performing schools.

Other research, though, has painted a more positive picture. Studies in Chicago, Charlotte, New York City, and Washington, D.C. have linked scaling back job security or seniority provisions to better student outcomes or improved teacher quality — and in some cases those effects have been most felt in disadvantaged schools.

“Perhaps our most important conclusion from this work may be that policymakers should be attuned to the ways in which any major changes to the public education system affect different teachers and different children in different ways,” the Michigan study concludes.