Could raising salaries be the best way to attract and keep better teachers?

Educators kicked off the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference on Thursday morning by addressing a recurring question among teachers: how can the status and perception of the teaching profession be elevated?

The talk soon turned to teacher salaries, and through the day, that topic came up, over and over again.

Research has shown that teachers are the single most important in-school factor for affecting student performance, so attracting and keeping good teachers has become a priority across the country. But educators at the conference stressed that the strongest teachers may be leaving the field because of concerns over salary or the belief that teaching is not a respectable profession. And, they say, the field may not be attracting the strongest potential teachers for those same reasons.

“I want teachers to be treated like brain surgeons, and assume that every single day that they go into work is a challenging day,” said Ninive Calegari, panelist and president of the nonprofit advocacy group The Teacher Salary Project. “What offends me is that they then go home to financial stress, and that’s unfair and as Americans, we should be offended by that.”

As it stands now, the National Education Association reports that beginning public school teachers can be paid anywhere from around $24,000, which is the average in Montana (and the lowest in the country), to nearly $45,000, the average beginning salary in New Jersey.

Salaries also vary within states, depending on district pay-scales, experience and the teacher’s education level. In districts that have introduced merit pay, teacher bonuses are typically based on how students perform on standardized tests.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a panelist and professor at Stanford University who is outspoken on education issues, highlighted the disparity between U.S. teacher salaries and those in high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore. In those countries, teachers and doctors have comparable salaries, and teacher education programs are extremely selective.

In Finland, where only one in 10 applicants is accepted by teacher education programs, the teaching profession is highly respected and attracts the nation’s top college graduates.

“People respond to you depending upon how much money you make as far as the authority you have, the prestige,” said Brian Crosby, a panelist and co-chair of the English Department at Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif.  “Teachers do not have the amount of salary they need to have the level of respect they deserve.”

The comparison to Finland and the issue of teacher salary kept coming up through the day.

“We are not Singapore, we are not Finland, we have a different set of circumstances,” said Kaya Henderson, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. “At the same time, we have to continue to hold these children to high standards.”

Some districts have seen salary levels directly affect their ability to attract and retain teachers. In Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools this summer raised beginning teacher salaries by more than $5,000 a year, to $40,000. As a result, school officials said they had a flood of applications—over 1,000 for about 540 positions.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, in North Carolina, which has experimented in the past with bonuses based on test scores, was recently identified in a study as a district that has failed to keep enough good teachers. This year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers, who start at $34,000, received their first pay raise in four years. New Superintendent Heath Morrison is also investigating how to raise morale and provide more support to teachers as a retention strategy.

But the teacher strike in Chicago, where the average teacher salary is $71,236, demonstrates that for many teachers, salary is only one critical issue.  Chicago teachers are some of the most highly paid in the nation, but even the offer of a 16 percent pay raise over the next four years has not deterred them from striking over other issues, like teacher evaluations and job security.

While raising salaries may not be a main focus of education reform, several members of the panel suggested that it might be the best starting point when it comes to making teaching a more respected position and attracting quality teachers. “In order for our country to be successful in the future, we need to have college students want to teach the same way they want to get into medical school,” said Calegari. “I think that that standard would really protect the future of our country.”

POSTED BY ON September 14, 2012

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Teacher salaries are so low it’s no wonder we can’t attract and keep good teachers. I make the same or more as a teacher, without an expensive college degree and without dealing with the stress of other people’s children! I considered teaching as a career when I graduated high school in 1975, and the wages were low even then. So I chose clerical/accounting instead. There is no financial motivation in becoming a teacher, you even have to buy a lot of the school supplies yourself! It’s an abomination as far as I’m concerned.

Bill Plemitscher

We have no evidence that the $45k new hire in NJ is twice as good a teacher as the $24k teacher in MT, nor is there a direct correlation between teacher salaries and student achievement (look at Chicago).
In NY, the teachers’ union insists that seniority is the only factor in pay scales and that a teacher at 25 or 30 years make double what the entry salary is. That’s insane. Seniority counts for something, but not double! They aren’t doing twice the work. The only reasons we pay anyone are to get them to work for us and to keep them working for us. So offer better starting salaries to attract good teachers and stop throwing money at people who are going to leave by retirement anyway! If Chicago’s average salary is $73k, what is their top salary for a classroom teacher?! The money available for salaries could be spent more wisely by moving both the lowest entry pay level and the highest, most senior level closer to the middle level of salary. Even with more money, better teachers will not be hired until we eliminate nepotism (rampant), stop hiring so-called academic teachers based on their athletic coaching ability or other factors, and even consider that some disciplines may be harder to fill and require more money to attract talent.


i agree that changes need to be made to attract /attain better quality teachers. but raising base salary isnt the way to do it. these people are never happy. $71,236 a year and they still strike for job security reasons. I make well under half of that and work like a slave for 45- 50 hours a week. they have months off per year, and they want security? how about they do a great job teaching our kids, and we let them keep their job.(thats how you get security) it is saddening to me to see kids in the 4th and 5th grade who cannot read or write. and I know of quite a few. to those making 24 k per year, i say they should be payed more but given the days worked per year, I dont think any teacher should make over 60k just my opinion.

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