The War on Teachers

Writing in The New York Times, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari bring some blessed common sense to the subject of teacher salaries:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Skipping ahead:

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

And they don’t even mention the fact that many teachers spend their own money to supply their classrooms.

Mind you, according to the Republican party these are the greedy bastards whose rapacious unions are bankrupting state governments. Even some Democrats have been joining in. The public schools have been mostly abandoned, their budgets slashed or diverted into the charter school scam. Teachers can turn on the television and hear blowhards who wouldn’t last a weak in a classroom talk about how easy their job is. The simple reality is that teacher salaries are a national disgrace, and even worse than that is the complete lack of respect with which they’re treated. The only reason teachers get the crumbs they do is because their unions fight tooth and nail to get them. The unions are just about the only good guys in our sordid educational system.

The solution seems clear enough:

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

Interestingly, these other countries don’t put all their eggs in the basket of standardized testing, or in short-sighted policies of cutting school budgets on the slightest whim. Hard to believe they get better results.

Of course, the changes Eggers and Calegari suggest will not be happening any time soon. With the Republicans eagerly redistributing wealth upwards and slashing anything that benefits non-millionaires, and with the Democrats seemingly too weak to stand up to them, who is going to take a stand for teachers?


  1. #1 Uncle Bob
    May 1, 2011

    It amazes me how much we denigrate our teachers here. As mentioned, we see nothing but the right line up to kiss the ass of soldiers, even though their policies seem to be specifically designed to harm them. Vice versa, the right lines up to shit all over teachers while their policies are designed to shit all over them.

    At least they are honest with teachers….?

  2. #2 surprises aplenty
    May 2, 2011

    Although I agree with the point of your post, I have to disagee with you on your description of Korea.

    Korean students live and sometimes die for the university entrance exam, a nightmarish standardized test that some students commit suicide over. Korean high schools are pressure cookers where a class will consist of 35-40 students and they are kept in line with the threat of the upcoming entrance exam. A few years ago I heard the phrase, “4 in, 5 out”. This refers to the number of hours you can sleep and still hope to get into a good university. Sleep five hours a night? You aren’t going to a good university.

  3. #3 Tyro
    May 2, 2011

    I am really of a mixed mind on this issue so let me share some of my confusion.

    First, if you argue that hiring better teachers will make a difference (which I agree with) then clearly the teachers *ARE* responsible, in part, for the results of their students. If students are underperforming, it is reasonable to claim that eliminating bad teachers can help. This seems obvious and uncontroversial yet the people that say we need better teachers don’t see the flip side, that we need to fire the worst.

    And there are some rotten teachers out there. Because the teachers unions fight for the teachers and not the students, there are teachers on pay who have slept in class, shown up drunk, and thrown things at students. In some states they are kept in a room away from students but they’re still on pay; in other states they are passed from school to school but they’re still teaching. It’s a travesty! If we’re going to defend the good teachers, surely we need to recognize that there are some bad ones and we need to do something about them.

    There have been several documentaries about this issue and they’ve found that by hiring the stronger teachers and by re-working the way classes are taught, even the worst inner-city districts can excel. However, they also show that there are some very rotten apples indeed and it’s virtually impossible to do anything about them.

    If we’re going to seriously address this issue, we need to confront the unions who have opposed all attempts to fix things. Yes, sometimes they oppose some very nasty changes, but they’ve also opposed some very good changes.

  4. #4 Tyro
    May 2, 2011

    BTW: I totally agree about teachers salaries.

    A documentary that I liked which showed some of the complexity was “Waiting for Superman”. Highly recommend it. It’s a difficult problem but it shows some light.

  5. #5 eric
    May 2, 2011

    Tyro: This seems obvious and uncontroversial yet the people that say we need better teachers don’t see the flip side, that we need to fire the worst.

    Both the military and the teaching profession are voluntary organizations. Unless you plan on instituting a draft for either one, you will never be able to fire your way to a good yet sufficient workforce. Never.

    This is not to say that you should keep all teachers (or the military should accept all applicants). They shouldn’t. But at the end of the day both the military and the teaching fields compete for brains with other professions, and ‘firing incompetents’ does not help you much in that competition.

    I thought the NYT argument was well done. But like Jason, I’m a bit cynical and don’t think salaries are going to go up any time soon.

  6. #6 Tyro
    May 2, 2011


    But at the end of the day both the military and the teaching fields compete for brains with other professions, and ‘firing incompetents’ does not help you much in that competition.

    Why do you say that? If we fire teachers who are abusive, drunk or otherwise clearly negligent then surely we have come out ahead, how can it be otherwise? Surely if there’s an argument to be made for thinking that hiring the best & brightest into teaching, then the same argument says that very bad teachers should be avoided or fired.

    As for raising salaries, when Michelle Rhee was the chancellor of the DC school system, she proposed to pay teachers $140,000 if their students got good grades and teachers gave up tenure. (Yes tenure. In a k-12 school. The mind boggles.)

    The union wouldn’t even allow this to go to a vote. If a group was fighting to preserve the status quo – low salaries and all – it was the union.

    I think salaries should go up, but I also think it should be merit-based and no state in their right mind would pay more without expecting some changes. It makes little sense to be paying the exceptional teachers the same salary as the incompetent ones. If we can’t fire the bad ones, we should at least be able to reward the good.

    Teachers aren’t machine workers. There really is a difference between individuals and everyone (including the NYT article) recognizes this. Everyone except the unions.

  7. #7 Chris
    May 2, 2011

    I agree that teachers should be evaluated and merit rewarded, and I agree that unions are good because they fight for teachers and bad because sometimes they protect the bad apples.

    But at the end, I think salary is the bottom line. It is simply not worth it to be a teacher and make 40K a year. My wife teaches at a private school and makes <20K. She could waitress 2 nights a week and make more.

    If we just paid teachers better, then better people would become teachers, and that would increase competition and weed out the bad apples. Currently, the only people who teach or those who love it, or who have a spouse with an excellent job, or who cant find a job elsewhere but are hired to teach due to lack of supply. If it paid more, you would have less of #3 and more #1.

    Were I supreme dictator, raising teacher salaries is the first thing I would do.

  8. #8 Jim Harrison
    May 2, 2011

    The whole education debate is based on an false story line. American aggregate test results don’t look competitive with other countries but only because the very low scores of poor and minority students pull down the average. We indeed have a genuine problem, but it is basically a problem of class and race. Blaming the teachers is simply a convenient way of changing the subject.

  9. #9 Tyro
    May 2, 2011


    If class and wealth were as strong a predictor of educational success, surely the success of the wealth students would drown out the results of the poor. Or we would expect to see results track with income across countries, but I don’t think we see anything like that at all.

    In the absence of compelling evidence, I think that pointing to “class” or worse “race” is a way of either ignoring the problem (since it’s too big to fix) or of racist way of blaming the victims.

    From what I recall, there have been several efforts to improve schooling across the US. Even in poor inner-city areas, some charter schools have been able to improve results. Students formerly condemned to illiteracy have been able to outperform richer schools. Their secret? Good teachers and a revamped teaching style.

    Even the linked NYT article supports the idea that better teachers are needed for better results. If they aren’t, then why wouldn’t we slash teachers’ salaries down to the level of Starbucks baristas or a Walmart greeter? Sure we’d drive away a lot of people but if there’s no such thing as a good and a bad teacher then what does it matter? We’d save a lot of money and by your argument it wouldn’t affect outcomes – it’s all just class and race, right?

  10. #10 eric
    May 2, 2011

    Tyro @6: Why do you say that? If we fire teachers who are abusive, drunk or otherwise clearly negligent then surely we have come out ahead, how can it be otherwise?

    Like you I agree in pay raises for teachers. But I think the NYT article got it right in pointing out the flaws in current political trends; the current focus on blaming teachers and punitively trying to reduce their power is exactly the wrong direction.

    Merit-based pay increases are a reward a teacher might get, depending on a host of factors. Tenure and collective bargaining are economic goods they do get. Its like the difference between an end of year reward given to a few employees vs offering a medical plan to all employees. You’d have to offer one hell of a potential reward to attract the same quality of worker, and no matter how big that reward, you might never attract competent workers that dislike risk. Many competent people prefer steady and stable income and benefits over a chance of a higher income; its not just drunks and child-abusers who value job security.

    So, where I disagree with you is that I think your ideas are a lot less realistic than leaving the current non-monetary career benefits in place and adding a comparatively smaller (but still sizeable!) pay raise on top of it. Because politically, you simply aren’t going to be able to give them the pay raise you’d need to make up for the loss of the economic good you want to remove.

  11. #11 Tyro
    May 2, 2011


    Tenure and collective bargaining are economic goods they do get. […] You’d have to offer one hell of a potential reward to attract the same quality of worker

    The major difference between a health care plan or pension and tenure is that a health care plan are a benefit to all employees, tenure only benefits the *bad* ones. Good employees do not need this sort of safety net and the few cases of unjustified hiring/firing can be handled by the same legal process that private sector employees use.

    So tenure isn’t a reward designed to attract a higher quality worker, it’s one that’s designed to attract and retain *lower* quality.

    The only other group to grant tenure are universities, and then it is on rare occasions to the best and brightest. For them, tenure allows researchers to pursue new knowledge which might be politically unwelcome. In k-12, tenure is granted automatically no matter how good or bad you are. It has no conceivable benefit to the school and only serves to protect incompetent or abusive teachers.

    When people say that teachers are underpaid, how are they valuing the benefits of tenure? I wonder how much a person in industry would pay to guarantee that they could never be fired or laid off. For the worst this would be invaluable and for the best it would be worthless.

    Because politically, you simply aren’t going to be able to give them the pay raise you’d need to make up for the loss of the economic good you want to remove.

    If we’re discussing political realities then we’ve really jumped to a new topic! You’re right, and I think that would be a fair, attractive compromise – give up tenure and streamline the process to discipline bad teachers, and in exchange the remainder get a pay raise.

    I’m with you, I think teachers in general don’t get enough credit and don’t get enough support (politically, financially). But when we accept that good teachers can help we must admit that bad teachers can hurt, and by getting rid of the bad we can replace them with the good.

  12. #12 Jim Harrison
    May 2, 2011

    As the man said, you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. It is simply a fact that the bad performance of the U.S. in rankings of academic performance is mostly a consequence of low performance by minorities. In the 2007 PISA tests, for example, white students’ science scores (523) ranked above the average of other tested nations, Hispanic American (439), American Indian and Native Alaskan (436), and African American (409) students all fell far below (U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics 2007).

    The usual story about American education is largely a crock. That people are ill-informed is not surprising, of course. If you Google articles in the main-stream press about academic performance, you’ll have to look long and hard to find even one that bothers to disaggregate scores.

    By the way, I’m certainly not suggesting that attempts to improve the parts of our system that already work pretty well are wrong-headed or that teaching is unimportant. I’m just pointing out that the elephant in the room is the failure of the system to reach minority groups, particularly blacks and Hispanics but also poor whites in areas such as Appalachia and the deep South. Of course teaching is relevant to addressing the disparity in performance between subgroups in America, but much of the disadvantage minority kids labor under results from the earliest years of their upbringing–for example, there is a huge literature that shows that black children (on average) show up at school on day one with a vastly smaller vocabulary than their white competitors and that it is terribly difficult for them to catch up. Again, schools can help and are helping–the gap between ethnic groups has narrowed over the last few years–but the problem isn’t just an educational one. The teachers, whatever their failings, didn’t cause the problem and can’t solve it either.

  13. #13 eric
    May 3, 2011

    The major difference between a health care plan or pension and tenure is that a health care plan are a benefit to all employees, tenure only benefits the *bad* ones.

    Did you just forget the last few years of recession? This is a job field somewhat unique in that budgets are directly linked to property taxes. As we just learned, these are neither stable nor ever-increasing. Add to that the variance due to changing class size/demographics, and the ability of elected officials to also directly influence the budget, and you have several perfectly rational reasons why a good employee in this field would put a high monetary value on a benefit which reduces risk/uncertainty.

    Good employees do not need this sort of safety net and the few cases of unjustified hiring/firing can be handled by the same legal process that private sector employees use.

    It is not about what workers “need,” its about what they prefer. The job market will respond to worker preferences regardless of how irrational they are, regardless or whether you share them or think they are stupid. If people valued working in blue buildings, red building jobs would have to offer more money to get equivalently skilled workers. And as long as good people value tenure – regardess of whether they should or not – you will have to offer money to offset its loss if you want to get equivalently skilled workers.

  14. #14 Tyro
    May 3, 2011

    @Jim – I’m not disputing your facts, I’m questioning their relevance. All countries have minorities and poor people so why do you think that the US should wipe them from the stats? If you look at other countries you’ll find one of two things: they outperform the US despite lower scores of their minorities (so the relative underperformance of the US still unexplained); or their minorities and poor do relatively well showing race doesn’t need to predict academic achievement. More to the point, are you seriously arguing that it’s *because* these people are racial minorities that they are doing less well in school?

    And like you can’t pick your facts, you can’t pick the consequences of your theories. If good teachers can help then bad teachers can hurt. And if improving the quality of teachers doesn’t matter, then we might as well slash their salaries.

    @eric – I don’t think you’re even beginning to deal with what I’m saying. I did agree that tenure has a value and that when it’s eliminated, teachers deserve a raise. Some states are spending millions of dollars on teachers which never interact with kids because they’re drunk/violent/sexually inappropriate/incompetent but the State has not been able to fire them. That’s money which could go immediately back into the system.

    You’re also dodging the point that the value is disproportionately given to the worst of the teachers. Replacing tenure with another form of compensation which values achievement rather than negligence would not add cost but could start to reward *competent* teachers, rather than incompetent ones.

  15. #15 JimV
    May 3, 2011

    My sister is retiring early from her career as a high-school art teacher. When I visit her family at Christmas or other holidays, she gets several visits from former students who are home from college. Partly that is because art teachers work more personally with their students and build deeper relationships, but also it is because she is a great teacher, I believe.

    She is retiring early because NYS is offering a pension incentive this year, to reduce the number of more experienced, more highly-paid teachers, so they can be replaced by less experienced teachers at lower salaries. My sister still loves teaching, despite a lot of bureaucratic hassles, but the incentive may not be offered again, and she has future finances to consider.

    I have a lot of relatives who are teachers (or students), and could fill a page up with anecdotes about the effects good and bad teachers have had – a bad chemistry teacher drove one of my nephews out of a pre-med major – but I’ll try to resist.

    Mark me down as one of those who think teacher quality is very important, and that the current system does not have the best incentives.

    Arguments by the previous commenters have swayed me back and forth, but Tyro comes out ahead, in my opinion.

  16. #16 Science Avenger
    May 3, 2011

    As a person with many teachers in the family, I’m all for raising teacher salaries, but incentivized raises tied to student performance are not the way to go. Search the literature on such programs, with teachers or others, and you’ll find a lot of results like this. Apparently, offering a do-more-get-more incentive program only works as expected with noncognitive tasks. Once serious thought is involved, it can have no, or even a reverse, effect. Just raise teacher pay above the level where they have to worry about how they are going to pay their bills, and watch the results improve.

    Politically, teachers unions must drop their position on no-fire tenure. It costs them a lot of support they’d otherwise have from those of us who sufferred the horrors of incompetent, insane, and sometimes dangerous “teachers”.

  17. #17 eric
    May 3, 2011

    You’re also dodging the point that the value is disproportionately given to the worst of the teachers.

    I’m not dodging it. I’m trying to tell you that a reform effort which removes tenure is going to require a lot more money (read: larger tax increases) than a reform which doesn’t. It is extroadinarily unrealistic to think you’re going to be able to implement the more expensive reform plan when in reality most states and districts don’t even have enough money to give cost of living increases to their teachers. You want to do A+B, and we can’t even afford A.

  18. #18 Jim Harrison
    May 3, 2011

    Tyro, other countries also have minorities but their rankings are not pulled down as far as ours because, for whatever reasons, their minorities do better than ours.

    It’s no wonder that people don’t like to think about the huge role of differential performance in this story: liberals are afraid that it will reinforce racial stereotypes while conservatives have evolved a blame-the-teachers narrative that suits them very well.

    As I mentioned before, I’m not suggesting that teaching is unimportant. Indeed, groups that value learning and teachers–Jews, Asians, New England liberal Protestants–do very well academically. Culture matters. One of the ironies of the debate about education in the U.S. is that so many of the loudest critics of the system promote the general contempt for learning that is a big part of the problem. They want to treat education as an industrial process that can be carried out on the cheap by low-status workers following stereotyped routines, but this approach simply lowers the prestige of schools and teachers while guaranteeing that the experience of going to school will be as boring as possible. I’m reminded of Huxley’s novel Brave New World where the epsilons, the children intended for a life of toil and obedience, were systematically trained to dislike art, music, and books. An inner-city high school dominated by an intellectually impoverished curriculum and teach-to-the test methods must be rather like that.

  19. #19 Rob Monkey
    May 3, 2011

    The main problem I have with Tyco’s position is that he keeps coming back to the “bad teachers.” Okay, I’ve had bad teachers, mechanics, dentists, doctors, etc. etc. Would I say most of the people in these groups are bad? Hell no, most mechanics I’ve been to are actually honest people. Most doctors and dentists genuinely want patients to feel better. And FFS, teachers, the people with one of the most thankless jobs in this whole country, sure as hell don’t do the job cause they want a chance to abuse students. Yeah, yeah, I get it, get rid of bad teachers, but what if there aren’t enough of them to make a difference? I think you have the availability heuristic blinding you here, i.e., I remember bad teachers a lot more than I remember mediocre teachers, therefore there are lots of bad teachers. In reality, given that teaching is such a tough job with low pay, I’d wager that most of the people who teach really want to be in the classroom. However, if you ask that person to get the education I got plus required continuing ed every year, plus contributing to the classroom, plus dealing with shithead parents, and then you want to pay them less than I made straight out of college? Give me a fucking break, and you think good teachers will stay? I’ve always wanted to teach, but I also want to own a car, eat real food, and go on a vacation once in a while. The ~27K I’d make as a teacher in my area would be a fucking slap in the face for someone who busted his ass to learn science in college instead of just slogging through a business major. There’s a simple truth in all of this, or as they say in internet speak: TL/DR – you get what you fucking pay for.

  20. #20 Science Avenger
    May 3, 2011

    One aspect of this debate that I’ve always found interesting is how often those who poo-poo the correlation between money spent and quality of education received (not necessarily anyone on this forum) so often scream the loudest when it is suggested that some of their top-level spending be spread out a bit. Its like the Yankees arguing that the quality of its team is not related to the money spent. Then why spend it at all?

  21. #21 eric
    May 4, 2011

    Yeah, yeah, I get it, get rid of bad teachers, but what if there aren’t enough of them to make a difference?

    Are you saying you think there’s a flaw in a plan to fire 1% and use the savings to give the remaining 99% big pay raises?

    Your objection is pure insanity! Next thing you know, you will be claiming its impossible to balance the budget solely through cutting non-defense discretionary spending!


  22. #22 NJ
    May 8, 2011

    Tyro @ 11:

    Good employees do not need this sort of safety net

    …and detailed explanations of exactly how naive this attitude is can be found here:

  23. #23 Foreclosures
    May 26, 2011

    Republicans and Democrats don’t know how to run America … should have voted Ross Perot decades ago …. LOL

    I feel sorry for the teachers they get blamed for too much out of there control … we should all blame ourselves for voting the same old party people really … well me i haven’t voted in a while since no independent runs in my area

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