Outrageous Teacher Pay?

The Chicago Teachers' Union strike may be over, but it has reignited the broader debate over education reform. Behind Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s negotiation stance is that underperforming schools are caused, at least in part, by underperforming teachers, and improving those schools requires better teachers who work harder and are easier to fire. Bad students just need better teachers, the thinking goes. It’s was part of the policy stance behind the attitude of former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, and was popularized in the hit documentary, Waiting for Superman.

If reformers are starting from that idea, then it must seem ridiculous that part of the Chicago contract negotiations hinge on paying those teachers better. There’s a popular idea that all of these teachers, who, after all, get summers off, are overpaid. We can’t answer the policy questions, but it’s pretty easy to see whether teachers are overpaid compared to other certified professionals with bachelor’s degree. The Prospect decided to look at how teacher pay has changed since 1997, which was the oldest year for which we could find data online, until 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, and compared it with how pay has changed for similar professions—accounting and nursing. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teacher pay started off at a lower level nationally, and rose more slowly in the past 14 years. 

What about the idea that Chicago teachers are getting paid outrageous amounts? For that, we went to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a “teacher reform” organization that collects data on teacher pay and other components of collective bargaining agreements. (It is nonpartisan, and is funded by private big shots like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, but it “was founded in 2000 to provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations,” i.e., teachers unions. Still, it provides useful information on teacher pay across the country.)

The Prospect compared Chicago to eight other of the largest school districts in the country, and looked at the entry-level pay and the highest step on the salary schedule. Chicago annual pay starts about $10,000 higher than the biggest counties in Florida, which dominates the chart with its many large school districts. It also reaches higher than all the districts other than New York City. The median salary for Chicago teachers is $67,974, which is just south of the exact middle of the bar in the graph below to Chicago.


It should be no surprise that New York City is so high—it's routinely ranked as the most expensive city in North America on cost of living indexes. Chicago ranks lower, at 110 in a report from a human resources consulting firm, Mercer, [requires a subscription], right at the same level as Miami, Florida, where teachers are paid less. But if the argument is that American school children need quality teachers, cutting teacher pay in a race to the bottom is an odd strategy.


Ms. Potts is correct in her last line - restricting pay is a race to the bottom.
However, she misses the point of the Chicago teachers strike.

Pay issues were settled very early. Although there was flux in the pay proposal over time, the teachers basically got what they had requested.
The core issues that led to an actual strike were whether the District could introduce rigorous teacher evaluations, and whether seniority was to remain the sole criteria for advancement or rehiring after a school is closed.

Although in press releases the Union President discussed the poor infrastructure of schools, lack of resources, lack even of air conditioning during hot Chicago days - all issues that anyone can support - the irresolvable issue that induced a strike was about the Union maintaining its control over hiring and firing.

As a parent and teacher myself, I am obviously in favor of good pay and working conditions for teachers. I have less sympathy for the joke that teacher evaluations have been in Chicago schools for generations. Heretofore a teacher had to be manifestly incompetent to not receive a "Pass" each year. I am certain this is not unique to Chicago. In resisting meaningful evaluations (to diagnose problems amenable to remediation or additional training, or for firing) it seems obvious the Union was not advocating "for the Children", but for themselves.

The exclusive use of seniority for virtually all personnel decisions is in a similar vein. Certainly a system that routinely lets senior people go to hire younger and cheaper labor is corrupt, but so is one that ignores job performance in rehiring or promoting personnel. As is, the "last in first out" system discriminates against younger, enthusiastic teachers who may enliven a creaking and often static educational system.

Of course better evaluations would help solve this - if performance were a greater part of personnel decisions Principals could not blithely fire competent senior teachers just to save money. Nor would they be forced to maintain incompetent senior teachers / fire high quality junior teachers just to satisfy Union rules.

All professions are moving toward more outcomes-based decision making. Physicians now have diverse rating systems available to the public, and empirically based medicine is the future of that profession. Many business have worked in an outcomes based management style for decades. Competent University departments employ extremely rigorous evaluation procedures for hiring and promotion. I am sure the nurses and accountants you compare to teachers have far more systematic evaluation procedures that does the Chicago Public School system.

Certainly evaluating a teacher in the complex and very difficult world of an urban elementary school is difficult, and any evaluation method has its flaws. That said, in one sense the Chicago Teachers Union struck to keep from moving into the future. When Chicago taxpayers begin seeing all their expenses wildly increase to buy down the $1 billion deficit (now increased some $270 million by pay increases) they will rightly demand accountability. The teachers union was foolish in trying to resist change. Rather than trying to hold back the train, they should have demanded full collaboration in developing fair and rigorous evaluation procedures, so they could be driving the train.

David McKirnan

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