Teacher-pay system needs overhaul
November 17, 2021
If people are paid for tenure—length of service—rather than quality, what do you think is most likely? Will that system attract quality workers, or workers willing to simply hold down a spot?
The answer is obvious. That system incentivizes tenure over quality.
But in practice, policymakers are continually surprised that a tenure-based pay system often doesn’t attract the best and brightest, only those willing to fill a slot and bide their time. Thus, policymakers are “shocked” that Oklahoma still has a teacher shortage just three years after passing major, across-the-board pay raises.
In 2018, lawmakers raised taxes and bumped teacher pay significantly. An Oklahoma State School Boards Association official recently noted teacher salaries have now been increased by almost $10,000 apiece and state school appropriations are up by $750 million. But the teacher shortage persists, as indicated by the number of emergency-certified teachers.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education reports Oklahoma schools have submitted 2,991 requests (and counting) to hire emergency certified teachers this school year. That’s more than the figure prior to the pay raises.
That trend should surprise no one given that Oklahoma teachers are paid based on length of service, not student outcomes. Such systems are not attractive to talented young people looking to make their mark right away.
Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican and 15-year classroom teacher, recently recalled how the seniority-pay system was more discouraging to him as a young teacher than the initial low salary. After surviving the challenges of his first years of teaching, Bullard recalled looking up and realizing that “down the hall was a coach who put five questions on the board” and did little real teaching, but who was paid “astronomically more money than I was” because he’d been there for 30 years. After a couple years of that, Bullard said, “the frustration sets in and you say, ‘I’ll go do something else.’”
He similarly recalled “one of the best science teachers I think I’ve ever seen” left the classroom after five years due in part to the seniority-based pay system.
Just as bad, the only other way to boost one’s pay in public schools, aside from running out the clock, is to become an administrator—which requires good teachers to leave the classroom.
Prior to my current job, I worked in the Oklahoma City school system and in state government and saw firsthand how tenure-based pay systems undermine workforce quality and impede progress. When you pay people as though they are all interchangeable cogs indistinguishable from one another, you can’t be surprised that those who truly do stand apart choose not to participate.
The financial incentives of our teacher pay system are designed to do many things. Attracting and retaining good teachers is not among them. Until that changes, one can’t expect a huge jump in school workforce quality.