Give principals flexibility on teacher salaries

Teacher pay is back in the news, with a good roundup of
opinion on the New York Times' Room
for Debate page
. We hear the usual comparisons between teachers and other
workers — and some unusual ones (teachers vs. bartenders?).

The
problem seems to be how we allocate resources, not how much money is available.

All the contributors miss a point that hits principals and superintendents the
hardest, however: If a good teacher walks out the door to work in another
district, or another profession entirely, because his manager doesn't have the
flexibility to pay him more (and potentially pay a less-effective colleague
less in order to balance the staff budget), something is screwed up about
teacher pay. Given how much money we spend on K-12 education in America, and
how quickly budgets have grown compared to modest enrollment growth, the
problem seems to be how we allocate resources, not how much money is available.

Note that this is not about building bigger and better state- or district-wide
formulas as some education reformers prefer. Value-added models are great tools
for principals to evaluate their teachers, but there's no reason to believe
they're a silver bullet. Subjective measures like attitude and teamwork matter,
after all, and principals shouldn't necessarily have their hands tied on how
they use objective, test-based measures.

The credentialism and bias toward seniority preferred by teacher unions isn't
helpful, either. A principal who is losing an amazing fifth-year teacher who
only has a BA doesn't care what the salary scale says she can pay; she wants to
retain her star staff member. Worries about cronyism are overblown in an era of
increasing accountability where principals can lose their jobs over poor
performance (see the high turnover among principals in D.C. Public Schools).
Add meaningful parental choice to the mix and you ensure parents' voices are
heard about what is important to them and their kids. If you get principals'
incentives right, they'll use whatever flexibility they can get to reward the
best performers.

If you get principals'
incentives right, they'll use whatever flexibility they can get to reward the
best performers.

It's worth noting, too, that letting principals negotiate salaries themselves
could reduce the problem of teachers moving to central office to get a raise.
If district offices had to compete against their own principals for talent, classroom
rockstars would have more reason to keep teaching if that's what they love and
their principals can afford to pay them their true value.

Although the private sector is less regimented about pay than public school
systems, it is isn't always the model of excellence some education reformers
paint it to be. Credentialism runs amok there, too, with businesses demanding
college degrees for entry-level jobs that could be done by a bright high-school
grad. (See the Times' recent
article
on employment among young veterans for an example of how this hurts employers and veterans alike.)

School boards and state policymakers can learn some lessons from the private
sector, but can also set an example for other public sector employers and fussy
private companies. They can roll back one-size-fits-all policies about inputs
(salary schedules based on degrees and time served and restrictive teacher-licensing
requirements) and give school leaders more control over their own budgets,
starting with teacher pay. Of course, managers need professional development to
get great at this skill. Let individual principals determine who is underpaid
or overpaid, and let them pay great educators what they're worth, not what the
salary schedule dictates.

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