The San Andreas Fault
Public school pay policies are on shaky ground
August 31, 1979
My sermon this week was on the topic, “Are experience and education mostly irrelevant to good teaching?” I concluded that Illinoisans tend to pay teachers most for exactly those things that matter least to classroom performance.
The teachers of the Springfield Education Association are negotiating with School District 186 for a new contract. As of this writing, things are not going well. Negotiators reportedly have cleared the table of such items as life insurance. sick leave, and the school calendar and have turned their attention to meatier issues, including the salary schedule. binding arbitration, and dental insurance. (Presumably this is what is meant when unions talk about getting a contract with teeth in it.) Salaries is the issue neither side seems able to swallow; as usual. the teachers want more money than the school board says it has, and another teachers' strike appears likely.
These late-summer negotiating marathons have become almost traditional in the years since school systems ran out of money to give teachers automatic pay raises and the voters in turn ran out of patience with teachers. Inflation has made the money issue even tougher. The last reported difference between the two sides on the cost-of-living increase ranged from eight percent to 10.5 percent, the amount varying with individual teachers according to seniority, education, and so on. (In moments of pique I have argued that unless the SEA is run out of town on a rail, the teachers will be getting more than they deserve. Such a happy event would be preceded. I'm sure, by six months' hard bargaining over the shape and size of the rail. and the precise order on which teachers would be seated on it.)
But the particulars do not interest me as much as the principles from which they derive. The salary schedule is a most instructive artifact, embodying several of the defining assumptions now current about the business of teaching. According to the 1978–79 contract, the basic salary schedule is ”based upon the principle or equal pay for equal professional training and experience." One may advance into higher pay ranges one or both of two ways. Vertical movement on the schedule (the schedule is arranged rather like a highway mileage chart) is based on years of teaching experience, with automatic raises (subject to some conditions) granted every year for each year in the classroom up through the fourteenth year. A beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $10,080 base salary; the same teacher with the same schooling would earn $14,805 after ten years.
Teachers also are paid more the more they know. A teacher earns incremental credit for advanced academic work past the bachelor's degree which entitles him or her to advance horizontally across the schedule—an eleven-step journey that ends with a master's degree plus an additional forty-eight credit hours. As noted. a rookie teacher with an unadorned B.A. earns a $10,080 base salary; a teacher who,however improbably, were to begin his career with the maximum allowable education credits would earn $22,155.
There are other provisions of the contract as it affects salary. including professional growth credits and longevity pay. But basically the salary schedule defines a teacher's worth to the district according to the premise that experience and post-graduate education make one a better teacher in proportion to the extent that one acquires each. It provides equal pay for equal training and experience, as the contract avers. The problem is that, beyond certain minimums, experience and education—and through the linkage of the salary schedule, the district pay policy—are mostly irrelevant to good teaching.
Indeed, so shaky is this premise as a foundation for schools that it may be described as the San Andreas Fault of modern pedagogy. Consider the matter of experience. It seems beyond argument that actual classroom experience one a better teacher. The question is how much. The SEA/186 schedule tacitly defines the limit of efficaciousness at fourteen years; after that time, the schedule awards no additional pay increments for experience.
The question of exactly when experience gives way to habit is probably impossible to answer to everyone's satisfaction. But it seems clear that fourteen years is too long and that most teachers probably hit their stride after four or five. It is significant that it is not necessary for a teacher to demonstrate improved teaching skills in order to qualify for his annual raise, merely that he demonstrate doggedness and durability in the face of the job's variegated trials.
Of course, it is naive to pretend that salary schedules serve only the broader ends of educational policy. They serve pretty narrow ones too, chief among them making district staff better-paid teachers as opposed to merely better ones. There is nothing wrong in this. It is only the pretense otherwise that is irritating. Educators, more even than senators, have grown adept at masking private greed with the rhetoric of public service. The fact is that teachers' salary schedules were designed to guarantee teachers opportunities for advancement. This is so teachers, once hired. will not abandon teaching for life insurance or evangelism or some other, more profitable calling and school districts will not have to turn their staffs over more often than a garden plot. Whether one thinks this is good or bad depends on whether one thinks youth or complacencyfort is the greater threat to good teaching.
If teaching experience is an uncertain predictor of classroom competence, teacher training is even less so. I haven't space to review the case against teacher training in the U.S., except to remind my readers that the educational attainments of our children have steadily dropped as the levels of formal education among our teachers have gone up. Indeed, I think we can reasonably trace most of the failures of public education to colleges of education, which have made mediocrity a busy servant to irrelevance. Additional study beyond the B.A. is occasionally useful, provided it is focused in one's area of study. But most of the extra classroom work which teachers so assiduously accumulate in response to school systems' bribes bear much the same relationship to learning that Readers Digest condensed books do to literature. It is bad policy to reduce to a matter of incentive what should be expected of every teacher anyway.
The fact is that we pay teachers most for exactly those things that matter least. Those qualities that make a good teacher a good teacher—imagination, energy, commitment, mastery of the subject matter, respect for ideas, and an abomination of the second-rate—find no material reward at all.
How then may we contrive to link money with what really goes on in the classroom? The problem is that and education are mostly irrelevant to teaching. Or how (in what really is a preliminary question) do we reliably distinguish teachers from time-servers? I have opinions. but no answers. Answering questions like this is partly why we invented school boards. These questions. rather than dental insurance and whether a cost-of-living raise may be said to be properly adjusted at eight, ten, or thirteen percent, ought to be on the agenda the next time the board sits down to talk about teachers' salaries. ●