Friday, March 2, 2012

Teachers: Quantity, Quality, and Pay

A business view of teaching and productivity.

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At a Meet & Greet session last week in Woodbridge, a public school teacher asked me what I would do about teacher pay as the Congressman from the 11th District. This teacher told me that the current starting salary with Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS) is $43,000, that the superintendent makes 7 times what a starting teacher makes, and that pay raises were limited to 4 percent annually. She said she is retiring soon and that a lot of colleagues are, too. She loves teaching but couldn't afford it if she didn't have a working spouse.

It may be difficult, but let's try to take the emotion out of issue and analyze the trades offs.
In the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2013, 83 percent of outlays goes to salaries and associated benefits. With labor costs making up such a larger portion, any increase in pay will have a huge effect on the overall budget. For teacher pay to increase without any new revenue, other PWCS employees could be paid less or there could be fewer PWCS employees. Since it's unlikely that the other employees would idly stand by and take a pay cut to benefit teachers, how do you have fewer employees? By utilizing technology to increase productivity and increase classroom size.

OK, OK, I know this is an outsider's view that amounts to heresy. But most businesses utilize technology and technological innovation to increase productivity.  Increased productivity increases wages by increasing the value that each employee imparts and decreasing the total number of employees. Large public school systems have seen a huge influx in technology but have not seen a corresponding increase in technological innovation and productivity.

The other aspect of teacher pay that runs counter to other businesses is pay for seniority. Typically equal work and equal knowledge are rewarded with equal pay.  If two people do the same job with the same level of competence, they're paid equally. Seniority is rewarded when it brings knowledge, productivity, and mentorship.

So what's Congress to do about teacher pay?  Not much actually.  In a previous blog post I noted that with about 14,000 school districts in the United States, the federal government has a limited role in local education. But Congress can fund initiatives that put instructional assets – such as student worksheets, online textbooks, computer-based tutorials – on the Internet and in the public domain for free distribution. Programs can be implemented to publicize best classroom practices and alternative instructional methods that make strides in teacher productivity. All these resources would be free for any school system to use without contingencies.

I know this blog entry will upset many people,  My parents were both teachers and I understand that teachers provide benefits that accrue to students and society as a whole.  But budget constraints aren't going away soon and it's unlikely that taxpayers will have a sudden urge to pay more taxes. And yes, some school system budgets could probably be trimmed with fewer administrators, fewer support staff, and more effective and prudent purchases of technology and equipment.

Teachers need to ask themselves if they can evolve their profession from strength in numbers to strength in productivity.  Both they and their students will benefit.