Breakthroughs in Education Department

March 7, 2008, 2:22 pm

My partner N pointed me to this article in today’s New York Times about a new charter school in the Bronx where one of the innovations is: teachers will be paid well. The idea is that you could get high quality teachers to commit to teaching secondary school by paying them as though they were intellectuals who did valuable work.

Jeez, why didn’t I think of that? Teachers should be paid professionals, rather than robots reciting a set curriculum. Or recent college graduates looking to do a little social service before law school. Or grown-up lawyers who have made their bundle and think that teaching is going to be a snap after thirty years of doing wills and trusts. Each of these solutions, regardless of what their individual merits might be, relies on paying teachers as little a school district can get away with.

“The school,” writes reporter Elissa Gootman,

“which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. That is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, roughly two and a half times the national average teacher salary and higher than the base salary of all but the most senior teachers in the most generous districts nationwide.

The school’s creator and first principal, Zeke M. Vanderhoek, contends that high salaries will lure the best teachers. He says he wants to put into practice the conclusion reached by a growing body of research: that teacher quality — not star principals, laptop computers or abundant electives — is the crucial ingredient for success.”

Now, I would just like to say that these teachers will be making twice the salary of a beginning assistant professor, and more than many (most?) full professors at private colleges and universities. It’s 25% more than my base salary, and I have been a history professor for eighteen years. Of course, secondary school teachers work harder than I do too: ten months a year, five days a week, and more or less dawn to dusk. (Well, actually, that is exactly how hard I am working this year — but I don’t have to spend all that time with twelve year olds, a job for which I am not temperamentally suited. So I will take the pay cut, thank you.) And the energy that secondary school teachers have left over for other kinds of professional development — conferences, writing — is miniscule. So for this reason alone they should be paid as much or more than college teachers.

But I think this raises another point too, which is what we have not been willing to think about as a path to resolving the job crisis in the humanities more generally and in some of the social sciences: giving up the status distinction between different kinds of educational careers. Why shouldn’t people with Ph.D.’s be teaching at the secondary level and be respected for it? Answer: because many of us in so-called higher education regard such teaching as low status work that returns few benefits. So instead we complain endlessly about the quality of students entering college today, and help new Ph.D.’s who don’t get jobs put together tenuous strategies for staying on the job market as long as they can reasonably afford to do so. Those who do not make it into a tenure-track job move around the country for one year positions, put together brutal adjunct teaching loads, and so on. Then, when that stops working for them, these intelligent, outgoing people who really wanted to be teachers go to law school. What if teaching high school or middle school were actually regarded as high status work that did not close the door to a university job in the future? I’m thinking.

A very high salary that rewards the quality intellectuals who are already teaching in public school, and that draws more quality intellectuals who have been educated to teach ideas rather than tests — would be one step towards thinking about education as a continuum, and dismantling the professional “tracking” system that stigmatizes community college and secondary school teachers as second-rank or failed scholars.

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