Teacher Pay: You Can’t Buy Groceries with Gratitude

This article originally appeared in TREND, the digital magazine of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Recently, Tennessee posted impressive gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  In fact, over the past two years, Tennessee had the highest gains of any state in the nation in reading and math.  That’s right. Tennessee is first in an education statistic.  And it’s a good one.

Following this important news, Governor Haslam, Commissioner Huffman, and various politicians and school district leaders sent words of encouragement and thanks to Tennessee educators for a job well done.  The thanks is merited and appreciated.  But too often, educators must settle for a “thank you” instead of professional respect and professional pay.

Tennessee teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation.  So, while it’s nice to be thanked, a fundamental rule still applies:  You can’t buy groceries with gratitude.

Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam basically acknowledged as much last month as they announced a plan to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in teacher pay.  But when pressed for details, Haslam said the statement represented a long-term promise and offered no specifics.  Saying we’re going to be the fastest improving state in the nation in pay but we’ll do it over the “long-term” is like a runner saying they will win the 100-yard dash by pacing like a marathoner.  Nevertheless, I’m optimistic that the Governor will at least make some effort in a positive direction in 2014.  No, merit pay doesn’t count.  All teachers deserve better pay.

Many Tennessee teachers start at a salary of around $30,000 a year and after 10 years, are making around $40,000.  That’s just plain insulting.  Educators were rightly given the bulk of the credit for NAEP gains.  And they’ve borne the brunt of numerous reforms in recent years – from raising standards for students to a drastically different and constantly evolving evaluation process.

Raising teacher pay isn’t just about teachers, though.  It makes a difference for students.  Researchers at the London School of Economics note that for a 5-10% raise in teacher pay, there’s an attendant 5+% raise in student achievement.  Closer to home, Metro Nashville Public Schools revamped its pay scale in 2012 and saw a tripling in the number of applicants for vacant teaching positions.  Increasing the pool of applicants makes entry into the field more competitive, and that’s good for students.

While state leaders are at least talking about moving salaries forward, local leaders bear a portion of the burden as well.  Many Tennessee districts have the fiscal capacity to offer better salaries and more resources for teachers and simply don’t.  With strong state leadership and a local commitment to competitive, professional salaries, teachers may finally see the professional wages they deserve.

Yes, “thank yous” and encouragement are nice.  But it’s time to move past gratitude and toward excellence. Without a fundamental commitment to paying educators well, that simply won’t be possible.

For more on education policy and politics, follow me @TheAndySpears



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