Governor Nathan Deal has committed to re-examine the decades-old education funding formula known as QBE (Quality Basic Education). As part of my attempt to keep people informed about the legislative session here in Georgia, I wanted to spend a little time looking at the different ways Georgia might make adjustments to QBE, specifically with regard to the idea of merit pay.

Last year, Governor Deal created the Education Reform Commission, giving them the work of recommending revisions to the education funding formula. One of the specific recommendations included a place for “merit pay” for teachers, but it did not address the general problem of low wages for all teachers. (Governor Deal did, however, announce that teachers will be receiving a 2% increase to their pay beginning in July.) I think this is a good place to start.

We still need to make the job of “educator” more appealing to potential candidates and to current teachers. Our state ranks poorly for teacher salary in the United States. Interestingly, our schools are ranked 31st in the nation. (To more fully examine how Georgia ranks on school spending and other pertinent data, visit the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s article here.)

Higher overall teacher salary and student performance seem to show a positive correlation (as this Stanford study suggests). But there also seems to be a positive correlation between merit pay and student achievement.

According to an interesting EducationNext article by Ludger Woessmann, a professor at the University of Munich, countries that instituted a merit pay system had higher levels of student achievement than countries that did not have such a system.

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While I am not a huge proponent of merit pay, I am very much in favor of increasing teacher pay as a way to attract and retain highly-qualified candidates (not exactly a new idea, I know). It is hard to imagine top-performing chemistry students choosing to settle for a $40,000 annual salary as opposed to pursuing an industry position that pays more and that offers opportunities for significant pay increases over time. We need to make the teaching profession a more viable option, more competitive with industry pay, in order to achieve parity.

(I realize I am a teacher and am therefore biased. However, I talk to many teachers who leave the profession because of pay, and I talk to many talented individuals who don’t even consider teaching because of the pay.)

If you’re convinced that we need to pay teachers more, but you’re unsure about how we would fund these increases, I would offer the following suggestions:

  1. Start by re-balancing the state budget, reallocating how state and county taxes are spent. (Do we really need any more taxpayer-funded athletic stadiums?) This type of spending sadly reflects how much our society values education.
  1. Decrease the amount of administrative personnel employed by local school districts. As the world has become more technologically advanced, professions have become increasingly more efficient. School districts, on the other hand, have continued to grow in non-classroom personnel. The state funding formula needs to appropriate more money for personnel directly related to the student and to the classroom. As it is now, we provide too much funding for positions that, I would argue, add very little value to student success.

And, if the state really wanted to implement a merit pay system, they could award it to local districts or specific schools that help close the achievement gap or that show increases in student achievement (based on a value-added method). However, student achievement needs to measured in a way that would reflect real growth.

Implementing a More Equitable Merit Pay System

The current method of assessing student growth is flawed. One way the state of Georgia has done this is through the SLO (student learning objective) assessment. Students take a pre-test (not counted towards their grade) at the beginning of the course, and then students take a post-test at the end of the course. Teachers have been known to tell students to “do as badly as they can” on the pre-test so that “they can show that they’ve learned a lot” during the year when they take the post-test.

Many students have told me their teachers have said these things to them, and I believe it. We cannot award merit pay based on these flawed methods. I would recommend a merit pay system in which we determine how much growth a student was able to achieve by comparing Lexile levels or other scores (i.e. EOC scores) from the end of one year to the end of the next year.

For example, an eighth grade student’s Lexile score at the end of her eighth grade year would be compared to her Lexile score at the end of her ninth grade year. Both tests would count towards the student’s grade and to the teacher’s “effectiveness” score.

Merit Pay: Not Enough to Compete

However, we cannot rely on merit pay systems to ensure that teachers are being compensated fairly and adequately. In a traditional Fortune 500 corporation, an employee would make, for example, $80,000 a year. But if she demonstrated high performance, she would potentially receive a “bonus” at the end of the year.

The point is that this employee in the private sector would be making a livable wage to begin with, and she would be able to receive a financial reward for high performance. Teachers need to be paid a salary competitive with the private sector, and if the state chooses, they could award teachers “bonuses” based on their effectiveness in the classroom or their additional involvement within the life of the school.

Again, I want to be clear: I don’t necessarily support the idea of merit pay. But if we do move forward with the idea of merit pay, we need to first raise the base salary of teachers. Educators are public servants, but they are also the ones preparing the workforce of the future. Therefore, they should be compensated in such a way that the profession attracts the ones best-equipped to impart this knowledge.

Below is chart with recommended mid-career teacher salaries based on the industry equivalent:

Teacher Positions Private Sector Equivalent (Based on College Major) Private Sector Mid-Career Median Salary/My Recommended Mid-Career Teacher Salary
Science Teachers Chemist $71,000
Math Teachers Mathematician $72,000
English Teachers English $65,000
Social Studies Teachers History $71,000
Business Teachers Business $75,500
Fine Arts Teachers Art $57,000
Computer Programming Teachers Computer Science $111,000

*Information gathered from Forbes, Payscale, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I would recommend that educator salaries should be competitive with these private sector equivalents, not necessarily exact. Notice that not all teachers would be paid the same under this salary schedule. And that should be fine. (Perhaps the teachers’ unions might disagree.)

This contrasts sharply with current teacher salary schedules. For example, a starting teacher salary in DeKalb is $44,650. After teaching for ten years, without any additional degrees (which are not shown to have any causally related effect on student achievement – read more here, here, and here), a teacher earns $48,400 (basically a 1.25% wage increase annually).

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This is only an 8% increase over 10 years, yet the rate of inflation is 3% a year (30% increase over a 10-year period). A simple cost-of-living wage adjustment should occur every year, with at least a 2-3% pay increase. Instead of getting a $4,000 wage increase over a 10-year period, I would recommend that teachers receive a $10,000-$13,000 wage increase. According to the Social Security Administration, the average wage increase last year was 3.48%, and over the past few decades, this number has stayed pretty consistent (with the exception of 2009 when wages decreased by 1.5%).

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We need to increase teacher salary schedules to reflect that we as a state and as a country value the work of educators in the classroom. If our wage increase is less than the state or national average, then we have a societal problem. You pay for what you value, and if we continue to be satisfied with a 1.25% annual wage increase for educators, who are training the future workforce, then we are going to continually have problems in public education.

With that being said, let’s re-examine the QBE funding formula for education and create a teacher salary schedule that reflects the true value of receiving an education. We can find money to pay for this – but how badly do we want to invest?