Much criticism swirls around the educational reform act No Child Left Behind, from its under-funded mandates to its heavy emphasis on testing. Less examined is a structural development detrimental to our children's education: how teachers' salaries have been left behind.
The disturbing numbers can be found in a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. The Teacher Penalty shows that teachers in Oregon and across the U.S. earn considerably less than other college graduates. Their earnings are also well below those of other professionals with similar educational and skill levels, such as accountants, reporters, registered nurses, computer programmers, members of the clergy and personnel officers.
How much less? Per week, Oregon public schoolteachers earn on average about 20 percent less than what other college graduates earn — worse than the nation's average teacher pay penalty of 15 percent. The penalty, the study found, decreases only slightly when teachers' health and retirement benefits are taken into account.
That means that each week the average teacher in Oregon makes about $250 less than someone else with a college degree. For Oregon teachers with a Master's degree, the pay differential is more severe, about $310 per week less than others with an M.A.
It wasn't always so. Back when John F. Kennedy was elected president, teachers on average made slightly more than those with similar education and work experience. Female teachers earned significantly more — almost 15 percent more — than women with similar education. True, the situation was no Camelot, as the higher pay in some ways reflected the limited professional possibilities for women outside the teaching profession at that time. Still, the pay comparison favored teachers.
Over the course of more than four decades, teacher salaries steadily lost ground. The downward trend did not halt even during periods of strong economic growth, such as the late 1990s. As one of the study's authors observed, teacher compensation seems "prosperity-proof."
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the detrimental impact of the teacher pay penalty. According to some estimates, nearly 40 percent of all new teachers in Oregon leave the profession after five years.
And who can blame them, when on top of the inherent difficulty of the profession, the overcrowded classrooms and the questionable demands of No Child Left Behind, teachers must also cope with the fact that they are systematically devalued compared to their peers?
Few dispute that attracting and retaining good teachers is imperative if we are to improve the quality of education for our children. But all too often, the proposed solution is to institute some form of merit-based pay that will, in theory, act as an incentive for better teaching. Yet experiences in other professional fields suggest that merit-based pay schemes are a double-edged sword. Though they bring about some improvements in average performance, they also give rise to negatives such as goal distortion and corruption. Ultimately, there are many questions not yet asked or answered by merit-based pay proponents.
At some point we may find a workable merit-based system for education, but it is misguided to present merit-based pay as the solution in light of the long-term erosion of teachers' salaries. It's like skipping the nutritious main course and offering only a potentially unhealthy dessert.
If we want to attract and retain good teachers, we must make teachers' salaries competitive. Closing the pay gap won't be cheap, but it will be well worth it if we truly want to leave no child behind and make our schools among the nation's best.
Juan Carlos Ord"ñez is the communications director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.