Who wants (some) teachers to be millionaires? You should

A lot of things about how we set up K-12 education in this land are all backwards.

Exhibit A is how we pay teachers.

Here’s the problem: The schools that should pay teachers the most usually pay the least.

Those would be the urban school systems such as Philadelphia, Chester and Camden.

Meanwhile, the suburban districts that can offer teachers many benefits beyond salary end up gilding the lily, paying the highest salaries.

Eyes on the real prize

This was just one of the examples of perverse education policy that got aired during a recent series of community forums on education held at WHYY.   Held under the auspices of the American Graduate program, a national initiative of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the sessions brought together a sampling of stakeholders in education, from city and suburb: superintendents, teachers, parents, student activists, advocates.

They talked about what’s right, and what’s wrong, about how our communities support schools in pursuit of this core goal: increasing the percentage of our kids who graduate from school ready for work, lifelong learning and civic life.

The dialogue touched on many issues, including ways in which the community and the schools do a pretty good job; I’ll report in more detail on the rich discussion later in the week. For now, let’s just look more closely at the topic of disparities in teacher pay, and the consequences:

Perverse incentives

For example, in Colonial, the suburban district where I live, veteran teachers routinely make salaries in the 90s or even six figures. They also work, by and large, in well-equipped classrooms on gorgeous campuses, with ample free parking. Their schools boast the latest technology. Most students have college aspirations and lots of support at home.

Every teacher gets many chances to feel they’ve helped launch children towards success, which is the payback that matters most to most teachers.

Go to an urban school and the picture is starkly different. So many kids arrive ill-prepared and deeply needy. Violence is common. Classrooms are old and lack basic resources.

Yet every one of those classrooms needs and deserves a great teacher. That’s the only way to reach these kids. But in these cash-starved schools, the pay is routinely 30 percent less.

The message we send to talented teachers is: Go suburban. Otherwise, get played for a chump. And end up exhausted and bitter.

This wacky, backwards system of incentives flows directly from our flawed practice of tying school resources too closely to local wealth.

Folly 101

And it’s not just wacky.

If you care about economic development, it is also, in a word, stupid. On any honest list of the reasons why businesses locate where they do, an able, trained workforce ranks much higher than tax rates. So do crime rates and social stability. Workforce, crime, stability – all these hinge on how good a job we do of reaching kids in urban schools.

So starving schools to cut taxes is terrible economic policy. In fact, a recent study by professors at Harvard and Columbia universities just estimated that improving the quality of just one teacher in one fourth-grade class improves economic output by $260,000 over the lifetimes of the kids in that class.

I have many quarrels with teachers unions, how they posture and resist change.

But that doesn’t blind to me this fact: Teachers who can turn urban classrooms into seedbeds of learning are among our society’s greatest heroes and most valuable assets.

If every great teacher who commits to urban schools retires as a millionaire, that would be just fine with me.

Money very, very well spent.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.