The XX Factor

Do Teachers Care About Pay? Yes, But Not as Much as You Think.

A teacher and students
A teacher and students.

Photo by Etan J. Tal.

I used to be a teacher: I wanted to excite children about learning and help shape the minds of the next generation. But like nearly 50 percent of teachers, I left the classroom before my fifth year. And while a higher salary would have been nice, it would not have kept me in the classroom.

A recent report from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have spurred yet more shouting matches in an already hopelessly ungrounded debate about today’s teachers. The report claimed that teachers are overpaid and raised the ire of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  “Money is not the reason that people enter teaching,” he said. “But it is a reason why some talented people avoid teaching – or quit the profession when starting a family or buying a home.”

I’m no fan of the Heritage/AEI report, but Duncan’s criticisms left me shaking my head, too. Both sides are missing the bigger picture.

Discussions about accountability, pay, and colleges of education do not adequately address the driving reason many teachers—including me—leave the profession: It’s  school policies that diminish their calling and impede rather than support effective teaching and meaningful learning. A study by the Center for Teacher Quality in California revealed that 57 percent of California teachers who left in 2007 cited “bureaucratic impediment—excessive paperwork, frequent classroom disruptions and too many unproductive meetings. I know the feeling.

There were also other factors that impelled me to leave: Inadequate preparation and poor quality professional development; lack of feedback on what I was doing well and where I could improve; meager time to plan and collaborate with fellow teachers; limited access to important data about students; and no foreseeable paths for career advancement. Other teachers agree.

A study by Cisco earlier this year, showed that 33 percent of young people would prioritize social media freedom, mobile device flexibility, and work mobility over salary. These desires could steer college students away from teaching, since it’s a career path that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to those options.

There are some small-scale initiatives under way that could help fight teacher attrition: The Gates Foundation is trying to identify the best ways to determine teacher effectiveness, and some states are developing evaluation systems that focus on feedback and improvement. Some districts are building data systems that give teachers real-time updates on student progress and others are launching initiatives that provide school-level leadership opportunities for teachers that include coaching new or struggling teachers, conducting professional development sessions and participating in decision-making. These pockets of promising practices are a start.

On some level, of course, pay does matter. Wages should be competitive. But pay is not the driving reason good teachers leave the classroom; it’s merely the icing on the cake. Policymakers and stakeholders need to tackle the deeper reasons why promising teachers leave the classroom year after year. Otherwise, districts will simply continue to supplant their teaching force summer after summer.