Senator Michael Bennet this week published an op-ed in the Boston Globe, saying the country needs to completely revamp how teachers are paid–and needs to pay them more. The current pay scale, he writes, is based on a model that discriminated against and took advantage of women, who often had few other career opportunities.
Study after study affirms what I saw in the classroom every day as superintendent of Denver Public Schools: Nothing makes a bigger difference for student learning than great teaching. To get enough of the teachers we need, teaching has to be a great job where talented people are supported and rewarded.
That won’t happen without reforming a compensation system that was designed deep in the last century for a labor market that no longer exists. It’s based on a society that discriminated against women, and left them with limited professional options.
When talented women had to choose between becoming teachers or nurses, we could convince them to teach “Julius Caesar’’ for 30 years with a small salary that built toward a generous pension in retirement. Fortunately, women today can choose from an array of lucrative professions. But our system of teacher compensation has yet to evolve to reflect this choice.
We pay new teachers extremely low starting salaries. They are eligible for only small increases as they advance through their careers. But instead of competitive salaries, we offer a pension system that is back-loaded. It invests potential early-career earnings into late-career rewards, causing teachers’ total compensation to swell at the end of their careers.
This setup provides perverse incentives: Teachers who are ready to move on might stick it out in the classroom until they qualify for full retirement benefits. Meanwhile, new teachers aren’t enticed. Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, well prior to achieving full benefits.
We urgently need a new system – one that provides competitive salaries from the start, and opportunity for growth, attracting talented people entering the workforce to the profession.