Let’s say you have just been named your state’s teacher of the year. You have three years worth of data showing that students learn more in your class than in your colleagues’ classes. You might even have data showing that your students typically gain 1.5 years of growth in their ten months with you. Students love you. Parents love you. Hell, even your principal loves you. By any measure, you are an all-star. Congratulations.
I can tell you what won’t happen. You will not be headhunted. You won’t be poached. Wealthy districts won’t engage in a bidding war to land you. You will not be taking your talents to South Beach.
There are only two explanations for this:
Despite what nearly everyone in education says — including every administrator I’ve ever met — district decision-makers don’t actually believe teachers make much of an impact.
District leaders know teachers make an impact, but they’re not willing to pay for it.
I think both are true. Most teachers don’t interact with every student in a building, much less a district. Superintendents may not be able to justify paying more for great teachers because such teachers will only impact a small percentage of their overall student population. Still, most district leaders probably realize that while such teachers’ direct influence might be limited, they can serve as mentors and role models for other teachers. Their high performance can enhance the reputation of an entire building. Hire more than a few and new families might even be attracted to the district.
No, I think most district leaders would love to have great teachers in their buildings, which means they’re unwilling to pay for them. They’re cheap. Regrettably, they’re right to be. These leaders recognize an ugly truth about pubic education in America:
There is a much greater incentive to control costs than there is to produce great students.
When it comes right down to it and a choice must be made, money matters more than kids.
At the state legislative level, education costs a lot of money. Legislators are reluctant to part with it. Republican legislators are especially unwilling because that would make it harder to lower taxes and balance budgets (something they used to claim they cared about). And they really don’t want to give schools more money because a lot of that money will end up in the hands of teachers, who will then turn over a portion of that money to their unions, who will then fight to get them out of office.
The amount of money a district gets is fixed. It can’t spend more than it has. School boards do what they can to keep from harming students, but they’re constrained. In the case of public schools, mismanagement of funds is much more likely to result in harsh consequences than poor academic outcomes. There is therefore a stronger incentive to keep costs under control than there is to increase achievement.
Let’s consider a hypothetical. A school district commits itself to producing better students. It decides it’s going to go out and hire the best teachers it can find (how they would identify these teachers is another matter). Nothing prevents them from offering a signing bonus to these teachers, so they cut elsewhere to come up with extra money that they will use to attract great teachers to work in their schools.
Let’s say it works. Scores rise. Kids learn more. Test scores increase. More kids go to college. The reputation of the school is burnished. Parents are fighting to get their kids in the door.
Where does that leave our district? They’d feel proud of their work. They might even use their success in marketing efforts to attract a few more students and receive a few more state dollars in return. But it’s eventually going to lead to money problems. The state isn’t going to reward the district with more cash for having greater success. So the district will be forced to cut costs down the road, and pretty soon they won’t be able to pay those great teachers what they were paying them before. And they won’t be able to lure more outstanding educators to their district. They’ll end up back where they started.
Critics of education often want schools to be run more like businesses. But when businesses succeed, there’s more money for everyone. Successful employees are rewarded. Companies go out and hire the best they can find. Money is invested back in the business. Success begets success in a virtuous cycle.
But in education, where funds are limited by state governments and better performance doesn’t result in more money, schools have a much greater incentive to watch their bottom lines. And if improving education outcomes raises costs, then you can be pretty sure those improvements won’t last. So to answer the title question, Why should you pay a great teacher when you can hire a cheap one?
As things stand right now, you shouldn’t.