Commonsense Education Policy: Differential Teacher Pay

Why paying more for teachers in high-need subjects and high need schools is so important

Our education system is currently failing many students. We should continue working tirelessly to improve our system and turn it into a powerhouse for economic mobility, but our current conventional wisdom about improving the system is frequently at odds with the research.

However, oftentimes the most intuitive economic conclusions about good policy can frequently lead to solid results. Here I would like to talk about one of those ideas: differential teacher pay.

Teacher pay alone is one of the most contentious topics in education reform and I’ve written about it a few times before. To sum it up, teachers aren’t underpaid by the typical standards of how economists assess wage, however, if we want to retain and promote the best teachers across our most struggling districts, increasing teacher pay may still be worthwhile.

Today, though, I don’t want to talk more about whether teachers are underpaid, instead I want to talk about who gets paid what.

Teacher retention is a massive issue in our most struggling districts. Put simply, the job is more difficult and more dangerous, and the districts themselves tend to be more badly managed. This, alongside a whole slew of other issues, has made it incredibly difficult to ensure that a majority of many student’s teachers are staying for the entire year. So although there’s little reason to believe that struggling schools have lower quality teachers, the fact that many schools can’t fill all the vacant teacher seats means that these students end up getting significantly less instruction time. This compounds over time and accounts for massive parts of the current achievement gap.

So let’s attack this problem through the lens of supply and demand.

Let’s think about the example of my own home city, Nashville. In Nashville, the gym teacher in the wealthiest, highest performing Nashville school is paid the same as the math teacher in the lowest performing school despite the fact that there are many more people who are qualified and willing to take the gym teaching job.

Now I’m not saying this to disparage gym teachers, they play a very important role in K12 education, this is just to say that we have a limited amount of resources to pay teachers and we should distribute teacher pay in ways that maximize the retention of quality teachers in ALL of our schools, not just the rich and high-performing ones.

So, I propose that we start increasing pay for high-need schools and high-need subjects until we begin to actually ensure that all of our students are getting consistent education.

That’s it.

Now I know this may be unpopular to many folks in education. I get that, I don’t think this type of policy is an option in teacher union dominated districts. But this is the most sensible and low-cost way to close the achievement gap, and so despite its unpopularity, I will stand by it.

Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things. coreykeyser@gmail.com

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