Teacher Pay Shake-Up

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 7:01 p.m.

Depending on whom you ask, Maine teachers are either woefully underpaid for challenging work or generously compensated for a job with lots of time off. One thing that can be agreed upon is that pay for public school teachers varies widely from region to region in the state and even from district to neighboring district. School district consolidation will move schools toward equalization of teacher pay. So will the 2006 state mandate that requires teachers to be paid at least $30,000 in their first year.

Pumping new state and local money into teacher salaries is not practical or politically palatable.

But when state and local revenues are replenished as the economy grows, policymakers must consider the implications of allowing teacher salaries to languish compared to other states. They also should consider the implications of allowing schools in the southern part of the state to lure teachers with better wages.

Maine’s average teacher salary of $40,737 ranked 39th among states. Put in perspective, Maine’s average wage is $40,039, which means a profession requiring a college degree and highly specialized training is paid on par with many jobs not requiring such training and education. It also means some of Maine’s teacher pool will leave the state to seek higher pay.

As many teachers approach retirement age, the quality of education could decline if the pool seeking to replace them is smaller. Merely raising the pay scale is not the right fix, given the way school budgets have grown in recent years.

To win over taxpayers reluctant to boost teacher salaries, educators should consider abandoning their extended salary schedules. These pay “steps,” which come on top of cost of living raises, reward teachers for longevity regardless of competence. Teachers also earn more for holding advanced degrees. Critics say those degrees do not bring better instruction.

In exchange for dropping salary schedules with 10 or more steps, teachers could instead get generous bumps in pay at five, 10 and 15 years, thereby encouraging longevity. At the same time, those steps could be tied to demonstrated competency. Maine teachers are now required to pass a test tailored to their subject area to earn certification. A similar assessment could be required for teachers to reach the five-, 10- and 15-year thresholds.

Teachers have long argued that student achievement is not a fair measurement of their work. Some class groups are more challenging behaviorwise, some enter less well-prepared than others, and sometimes students suffer family problems that affect their studies.

Stephen Bowen, a former teacher who works for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, argues that there are now sophisticated student assessments to measure teacher competence. The assessments can be done several times during a year and can take into account factors like student behavior and family life.

A shake-up in the way teachers are compensated is overdue. Some of the fixes will be resisted by teachers, some will be embraced. A mix of respect for what educators do and a demand that they are accountable for their work should guide policymakers through this needed transformation.

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