The problem of rewarding longevity instead of excellence

By James Golsan

As Texas’ school finance litigation has progressed over the past two months, questions about whether we as a state compensate our teachers adequately have emerged. Other than a student’s home environment, nothing is more important to a child’s learning experience than the quality of the teaching they are receiving.

Therefore, incentivizing great teaching must be made a priority. We must examine the manner in which our teachers are compensated to ensure that is taking place.

One misleading charge put forward during the course of the school finance litigation was that Texas teachers are paid 7 percent below the national average and that this is a contributing factor to their burnout and leaving the profession.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, this is actually 5 percent more than the last time I ran the numbers when they were paid 12 percent below the national average; but, here’s the rub: the cost-of-living in Texas is 10 percent below the national average, meaning that Texas teachers, on average, are compensated about 3 percent above the national average now.

Average teacher pay in the U.S. in 2011 was $52,770, according to teacherportal.com.

Texas teachers were paid $48,638 and California teachers were paid $67,871, about 29 percent above the national average.

But, the cost-of-living in California is 32 percent above the national average. When taking cost-of-living into account (before taxes), Texas teachers make an adjusted equivalent of $54,042.22, some 2.4 percent above the national average, while California teachers average an effective pay of $51,417.42, or about 2.6 percent below the national average.

Above all else, however, what should be stressed about teacher compensation in Texas is that the amount we pay our teachers is not the problem. The manner in which we reward performance is. That is to say — we don’t. We reward longevity.

Texas has what is called a “state-minimum salary schedule.” This means that teachers must be paid a certain amount commensurate with their years of experience. A first-year teacher makes X, a second-year teacher makes Y, and so forth through the first twenty years of a teacher’s career.

Most districts pay comfortably above the minimum standards, but they use the experience-based salary scale as a model, granting blanket raises on an annual basis.

This model does nothing to encourage excellence in the classroom. In a pure salary schedule model, a strong educator will be rewarded in the same manner a weaker one will be, so long as both educators stay in the system for another year.

This is unfair to both great teachers, who deserve to be rewarded more, and to students learning under less-effective educators who have no incentive to improve their in-classroom performance.

That’s why it is important to always dig below the surface of an argument and not just accept things at face value. The problem with teacher pay in Texas is not how much — it is in how we choose to reward them.

James Golsan Education Policy Analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation

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