Why It Pays to Be an Old(er) Teacher

Why It Pays to Be an Old(er) Teacher
SourceCorbis

Why you should care

Because a pay system that supports stable, strong teachers ought to help America’s schools.

You probably figured you’d heard every bad or crazy thing about the dysfunctions of the U.S. education system already. Particularly when it comes to wages. Teachers aren’t famous for the money they make. Which might make the tenacity of some a little surprising.

After 20 years on the job, only 2 to 3 percent of teachers leave before retirement.

The reason? Money. Yes, we’re still talking about teachers. For most professionals — lawyers, doctors, accountants, computer programmers — income peaks when people are in their 40s and then gently declines, on average. Take-home dollars might not go down, but income fails to keep pace with inflation. But where teachers are concerned, with a limited total salary pot, much is spent on rewarding older teachers closer to retirement, more than on attracting and retaining younger teachers, where turnover turns out to be much higher. They have to wait until way late in life, until their mid-fifties, to earn peak salaries.

In fact, the numbers, put together by Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab and research professor at Georgetown University, look pretty bleak. That’s not a bad thing, but in their first five years in the classroom, 13.5 percent of newbie teachers bail from the profession. The impact is even worse than the raw numbers suggest. That’s because affluent school districts tend to attract the more experienced — and stable and higher paid teachers — meaning poorer districts experience higher teacher turnover and more instability, just when they need the opposite.

Roza argues that, for the health of the profession, the salary curve should be flatter, but she figures that between teachers unions and government regulations, redoing the whole salary system could prove to be mission impossible. A much easier fix, she says, would be to award equal-value cost-of-living increases to teachers, rather than percentage raises where most of the increase goes to the already higher paid teachers. The five-year value of COLA increases in New York in 2013, for example, netted $25,014 for a teacher with five years’ experience versus $41,542 for a teacher with 22 years’ experience.

Since we’re talking about education, naturally, not everybody thinks this is a great idea. Lee Barrios, a retired teacher and education activist in Louisiana, figures the approach — paring back the incomes of experienced teachers — is upside down, in part because it violates an explicit deal in her state that teachers would accept low pay in exchange for decent retirement benefits. “Teachers don’t teach for the money,” she says. Far more important in her view is to stop trying to turn education into a business and to strengthen tried-and-true community control.

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