Column: Slim raises won’t keep teachers here for long

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When Dan Hamermesh heard that Northwest ISD was paying rookie teachers $44,159, he was thrilled. “That’s phenomenal! In Texas? I’m happy to hear it.”

But within 30 seconds, he’d switched gears: “That’s just pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. It’s exactly wrong.”

What was he talking about? Who is Dan Hamermesh? And why does he think that well-meaning North Texas school districts are making choices that will drive promising teachers out of the profession?

He’s a renowned labor economist and professor at the University of Texas. He studies, among other things, the ways in which wages impact the decisions of employers and employees.

His concern is that school districts have poured millions of dollars into raising the salaries of starting teachers – but haven’t done nearly enough for the more experienced. The result is that teacher salaries start high, but barely move after that.

“A big increase at the low level may look impressive – that’s the number that gets published in the newspaper,” he told me last week. “But who’s going to wind up staying after the first few years?”

Here’s what he means. When Northwest ISD announced its new starting salary – apparently the highest in Texas history – we splashed it on the front page. After all, $44,159 is an awfully nice salary for a 22-year-old fresh out of college.

But how much does, say, a 27-year-old who’s been teaching five years get paid in Northwest? According to the district’s salary schedule, $45,559 – barely a smidge above the base.

And an experienced 10-year veteran? Try $46,961.

I’m not saying those are bad salaries. (They’re more than a lot of newspaper reporters earn, for instance.) But the slope of increase as a teacher gains experience is awfully flat. Show me another profession where 10 years of experience only earns you an extra $2,800 in pay.

(That’s about half a percent a year.)

I don’t want to pick on Northwest ISD. The same sort of pattern shows up in just about every North Texas school district. And they’re all out of whack with the rest of the country.

A federal survey a few years ago found that 10 years of experience usually earned an American teacher about $9,600 extra in salary.

I spot-checked a dozen or so districts around the country, and that sounds about right. In San Jose, 10 years’ experience is worth an extra $16,700. In Baltimore, $13,900. On the low side, those 10 years were worth only $6,200 in Tampa and $8,600 in Atlanta.

That’s Dr. Hamermesh’s worry. Young teachers might be eager to sign up for a high initial salary. But after a few years – right around the point when they actually learn how to teach – they’ll realize they’re staring at a long line of raises that look like rounding errors. Maybe it’ll inspire some of them to grab the brass ring and become principals. But it’ll push others out the door.

“You’re giving them all the incentives to start there and none to stay there,” he said.

Texas schools already lose around 40 percent of teachers in the first three years of their careers anyway. Sometimes it’s because women want to quit working and start a family. Sometimes it’s just because teachers get tired of wrangling with ornery children. Molasses-slow raises could give them another reason.

But my problem with a flat salary schedule isn’t just about teacher retention. Paying all teachers roughly the same implies that they are roughly the same. For decades, teacher groups have pushed for uniformity in how teachers are compensated – no matter how varied the skill levels they require.

It’s a lot harder to find a good AP physics teacher than an elementary school P.E. teacher. But they get paid the same.

It’s a lot harder to find a good bilingual special-education teacher than a middle-school history teacher. But, in a lot of districts, they get paid the same.

Without a sensible plan to pay teachers based on their skill, experience is the closest surrogate to quality most districts have to work with. Veteran teachers are, on average, better than rookies, and it makes sense to pay them more. But now even that differential is going away.

It’s great to see salaries rising for teachers fresh out of college. But if districts have some money to spend on teachers, they should think hard about dumping it all on 22-year-olds.

You don’t just want to snag ’em. You want to keep ’em around for a while.