by Max Brantley
Arkansas school teachers will want to check out Jay Greene's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today. Greene is the fellow brought in with Walton dollars from a conservative think tank to implement Walton family education theories at the Waltons' university in Fayetteville.
I suspect this is for subscriber's only, but the column makes the point that it's a myth that teachers are underpaid.
Who, on average, is better paid -- public school teachers or architects? How about teachers or economists? You might be surprised to learn that public school teachers are better paid than these and many other professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public school teachers earned $34.06 per hour in 2005, 36% more than the hourly wage of the average white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.
In the popular imagination, however, public school teachers are underpaid. "Salaries are too low. We all know that," noted First Lady Laura Bush, expressing the consensus view. "We need to figure out a way to pay teachers more." Indeed, our efforts to hire more teachers and raise their salaries account for the bulk of public school spending increases over the last four decades. During that time per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled; overall we now annually spend more than $500 billion on public education.
The perception that we underpay teachers is likely to play a significant role in the debate to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. The new Democratic majority intends to push for greater education funding, much of which would likely go toward increasing teacher compensation. It would be beneficial if the debate focused on the actual salaries teachers are already paid.
It would also be beneficial if the debate touched on the correlation between teacher pay and actual results. To wit, higher teacher pay seems to have no effect on raising student achievement. Metropolitan areas with higher teacher pay do not graduate a higher percentage of their students than areas with lower teacher pay.
Those urban areas are hugely overrepresented with kids -- poor primarily -- most likely to underperform on the standardized tests Greene loves so much. And read some Jonathan Kozol if you'd like some stark examples that prove just the opposite of Greene's shoddy theory -- like the elite prep schools that cost $40,000 a year to attend and where spending on students approaches the college level. Guess what? Those kids do great. Is it the money? Or is it that the children of higher-income parents with traditions of educational attainment will do better than poor kids of poorly educated parents?
No, underperformance is always the teacher's fault in Greene's world. Greene rails particularly about pay raises based on seniority and additional education, though don't you expect he wants a pay raise every year and that he believes his academic credentials should be a factor in HIS pay?
And what an academic paragon. Based on a single year of testing of a handful of kids at one Little Rock school -- against a group of schools chosen in a way to improve the chance the comparison would prove their point -- Greene tells a national audience that a Little Rock merit pay experiment is a smashing success. Even some of his colleagues at Walton U. have had more integrity than to make this sweeping claim.
There is evidence that providing bonuses to teachers who improve the performance of their students does raise academic proficiency. With our colleagues at the University of Arkansas we found that a Little Rock program providing bonuses to teachers based on student gains on standardized tests substantially increased math proficiency.