The fight over the compensation of teachers is in many ways a fight over the nature of teaching itself. Is it a skilled profession, like law or medicine or finance, in which those who succeed in a competitive marketplace receive high compensation? Or is it a public-service job, like being a police officer or a firefighter or a civil servant, in which the exchange is job security and ample benefits for a commitment to serve the public? Right now, most teacher contracts are like civil-service contracts: You get gradual and steady raises based primarily on how long you’ve been in the job. Most of the benefits come on the back end, in retirement and in the years leading up to it.
But the "army of new teachers" that Obama has pledged to bring into the system may not be so crazy about a civil-service job.
Earlier this summer, a research group in Seattle called the Center on Reinventing Public Education came out with a new study on teacher compensation. The graph below, taken from the study, shows the results of a simulation for "what a single white woman with a technical degree from a selective college would earn inside and outside of teaching at three points in her early career." When this imaginary woman graduated in 1994, she would have earned $3,561 more as a teacher than outside of teaching, because of a starting salary guaranteed by a union contract. By the time she was nine years into her working life, though, she would have fallen behind her peers, making $10,203 less as a teacher than if she had followed another career path.
So, how do you restructure compensation to make teaching more attractive to that archetypal selective-college graduate? Do you pay all teachers more? Provide other benefits to compensate for a smaller salary? Or do you restructure teacher pay so that high performers earn more than their colleagues?
In Washington, D.C., right now, the fight over teacher quality is being debated at the negotiating table. Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor, has been in office only a little more than a year, but already she has become one of the most important education officials in the country. Not "important" in the sense of "powerful"—D.C. is a pretty small school system—but important because of the sweeping reforms she is trying to put in place.
Back in July, Rhee proposed a new contract for the city’s teachers. As the Washington Post reported at the time,
Under the proposal, the school system would establish two pay tiers, red and green. … Teachers in the red tier would receive traditional raises and would maintain tenure. Those who voluntarily go into the green tier would receive thousands of dollars in bonuses and raises, funded with foundation grants, for relinquishing tenure.
In other words, red for traditionalist civil servants, green for merit-pay rebels.
The bonuses and raises Rhee proposed were unusually large. Even teachers who chose the safer option would do pretty well. But not as well as the greens. As the Post noted , in the red tier, "a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of service who makes $56,000 could receive $73,800 by 2012." If that same teacher chose the green tier, she could be making as much as $122,500 in that year. (Currently, the average teacher salary in the country is $47,600.)
The downside of choosing the green tier: You give up tenure and spend a year on probation. If at the end of that year the principal decides that you haven’t proved yourself, you’re fired, no matter how long you’ve worked for the system.
It’s a revolutionary idea—last week, a columnist for the Post wrote that the proposed contract, if accepted, "would be a watershed event in U.S. labor history." D.C.’s teachers are divided on whether it’s a good deal. The leader of the local teachers union seems to be leaning toward taking it, but other union officials are firmly opposed . The union local’s vice president, Nathan Saunders, told the Post in July that the deal would be "a tremendous step backwards for teachers as dignified professionals. … It is the purchase of valuable rights for cash."
Of course, that’s kind of what being a professional entails: giving up the kind of job security and stability that you get if you’re a wage laborer in exchange for a whole lot of money.