Commentary: Yes, Pay Teachers More. But States, Districts, and Schools Must Use Resources Strategically If Educators and Students Are to Thrive

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First, West Virginia teachers walked out. Then Oklahoma teachers shut down schools for nearly two weeks, while educators in Kentucky and Arizona rally, protest, and threaten further action.

Teachers in these states are sending a simple message: We’re not paid enough. And they are right. But as states and districts work to provide teachers with the pay they need, leaders must also use this crisis to spark more strategic use of their resources. We must focus on how much districts spend, but also on how well they spend it.

Teacher compensation is a great place to start. In some places, the situation is dire. In 23 states, the average teacher doesn’t even make a living wage — meaning those educators can’t cover the basic costs of raising a family. In 34 states, teachers with at least 10 years of experience who head families of four would qualify for multiple public assistance programs. On average, American teachers make 17 percent less in salary than other workers with comparable education and training. This isn’t fair, but it’s also not strategic. Teachers who can’t pay their bills are overworked, stressed — and eager to leave. This harms student learning and costs districts thousands of dollars to hire and train new staff.

So, it is important to ensure a threshold level of pay. Teachers’ compensation should be comparable to those of other respected professions that require similar training and expertise. Beyond that, districts must be careful to not automatically throw money into old ways of doing things. Instead, they should structure compensation packages strategically, including pensions and benefits, in ways that retain great teachers and improve student outcomes. This might mean increasing pay in the early years, rewarding teachers who take on leadership roles, freezing yearly raises for teachers who are consistently rated ineffective, and paying more for hard-to-staff roles and assignments.

For example, in Massachusetts, Lawrence Public Schools created a five-tiered compensation system, based on experience, contribution, and responsibilities, that Massachusetts is working to share with other low-performing districts in the state. In North Carolina, the legislature recently voted to increase teacher salaries and, at the same time, allocate dollars to support districts that pilot innovative compensation structures.

But we can’t support teachers and increase student outcomes through compensation alone. It’s about the entire value proposition of being a teacher — the complete set of offerings provided by schools to their faculties as compared with similar opportunities. Teachers care about pay, but they also care about working in schools led by strong principals, where they get to collaborate with other inspiring teachers whom they get to know over the years, have opportunities to learn and grow, and feel like they are making a difference for their students.

Creating this strong value proposition will require redesigning schools — organizing people, time, and money differently. For example, schedules must provide time for teachers to work and learn together, and for students to get enough time and teacher attention in areas where they’re struggling. Novice teachers must be protected from the most challenging assignments, and get the support they need, until they have fully mastered their skills.

These are daunting tasks. But around the country, many districts are working to create strategic school systems and improve the teacher value proposition to accelerate student learning — in many cases, without spending more. In places like Denver, Cleveland, Tulsa, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and Boston, districts are giving leaders more flexibility over their resources and school designs, along with support to help principals hire the right people, create the right schedules, and provide the right social-emotional supports in their schools.

It is hard, slow work that requires people to step out of their old ways of doing things. But these are the kinds of changes, along with increased and strategic compensation, that make teachers’ jobs enjoyable and productive. Teachers engaging in walkouts — now and in the future — deserve to work in school systems, supported by their states, that allocate resources strategically to help them thrive. The kids they serve deserve that too.

Karen Hawley Miles is CEO and president of ERS, a national nonprofit that created The Strategic System for Strong Schools, a collection of tools and publications to help district, school, and state leaders transform how they use resources.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to ERS and The 74.

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