July 23, 2024

Teachers and Pay

Ask virtually any teacher whether they are paid enough for the work they do and you’ll get the same answer. “No!”

Is that true? Teachers are represented by unions, organizations that exist for the purpose of raising wages and improving working conditions. So why do teachers feel they are getting short-changed?

On the surface of things, teaching seems to be an easy job. You just stand up and tell a bunch of kids things that you already know, right? Not really. Consider some of the things that teachers are asked to do:

  • Teach subject matter, usually in multiple subject areas
  • Maintain discipline without use of corporal punishment
  • Diagnose learning disorders
  • Enforce dress codes ignored by many parents
  • Spot signs of child abuse
  • Stop bullying
  • Educate “special needs” children in situ and simultaneously teach the rest of the class
  • Act as substitute parent and role model
  • Stand or walk for 8 hours per day
  • Grade hundreds of papers every week & record results
  • Prepare individual progress reports for 2 dozen students every month
  • Balance real learning vs. mandated test results
  • ID and correct aberrant behavior
  • Ensure physical safety of children
  • Subject oneself to a constant barrage of coughs, sneezes, and germs
  • Excite children to want to learn about subjects they don’t care about

That’s a lot to ask for a person with a 4-year degree who generally comes into the profession making less than $30K per year. According to the Houston Chronicle, the average salary for an HISD teacher is about $48K per year, which is not bad, except for the fact that this number is inflated by the “combat pay” that’s dished out to get teachers to work there.

Support from parents and administrative officials is generally minimal or non-existent. At too many schools administrators fail to participate in curriculum development or simply issue vague mandates about following the latest trend in educational theory. School administrators are supposed to be leading the charge into the new century, not using teachers as blocking backs against the onslaught of standardized testing. Too often they are not carrying their share of the burden, a share that, given their relatively higher salaries, should be substantial.
As for the parents of today, well, what more needs to be said?

But teachers get the whole summer off, don’t they? Consider that the average teacher works about 10 hours per day for 190 days per year and compare this to Joe Sixpack’s 8 * 250 schedule. Teachers work about 100 hours less per year, assuming they don’t lift a finger over the summer. But many of them are busy preparing for the next school year without compensation. Some do so because they love what they do, some to make the next year a little bit easier, and most for both reasons, none of which changes the fact that there’s no pay for working extra hours.

Leaving the issue of unpaid time aside and sticking to the base number, we can see that new teachers are paid $15.79 per hour (30K / 1900 hours) – considerably less than your average plumber, air-conditioning repair man, UPS delivery driver, or fast-food restaurant manager. Is this what we want?

Let’s face it: teaching is a profession where burnout is much more common than we’d like to believe. We want children to be taught by teachers who not only have an “A” game but bring it to class every day. But the truth is that it’s impossible to do this day after day, year after year. Being asked to do it for 30-50% less money than comparably educated peers earn in other professions only makes doing the impossible that much harder.

Recall your own childhood. Do you remember a time when your teacher wasn’t having a good day? When he or she snapped at your childish antics for no apparent reason? I’m sure you do. Most of us have the luxury of letting a call go to voice mail on a bad day or putting off a difficult problem if we’re not feeling well or just going to the bathroom when we need to go. But there’s no down time for teachers – twenty-odd pairs of eyes are always watching, hopefully waiting to learn, just as often waiting for the teacher to make a mistake so they can point it out and laugh, but always watching and taking in everything the teacher does. Lessons have to be made fresh and exciting each time lest an opportunity to capture a child’s imagination be lost forever. And not just the first time or the second or third – every time, even when they’re old and stale in one’s mind.

Think you can do that every day for nine months while making a mediocre salary? If so, you should try. Every class has a couple of shining stars in it that are just a joy to work with. But don’t forget that you’ll have to deal with:

  • the 5th grader who can’t read
  • the ADD child who can’t sit still for 10 minutes straight
  • the kid who hates the world because dad beats mom at night
  • the boy whose parents let him stay up ’til midnight every night of the week
  • the girl whose parents let her dress like a sex toy

And all the while you have to teach twenty other “normal” children who – let’s tell the truth – don’t really want to be in your class. Also, don’t forget that when junior gets a failing grade on his report card that the parents who never helped him with his homework because TV was more interesting will demand a conference to find out why you didn’t force him to learn how to divide fractions. Don’t forget that half of your class has never been taught manners at home, don’t know how to behave properly in an educational setting, actively refuse to obey instructions, and misbehave the moment your back is turned. And above all, don’t forget that regardless of what you’ve actually taught the children that a standardized test will be the primary judge of your ability as an educator.

Money cannot compensate a person in enough ways to make these issues disappear. But it helps. HISD knows this – that’s why they paid out $14 million dollars in bonuses to the cream of the crop among its teachers. Sounds good to me – except of the fact that they did it wrong.

Here’s what some folks in Houston had to say:

“Let me just say that the BEST teacher at my school received NOTHING!!! One of the WORST received over $4,000. Teachers who co-teach on the same team received different amounts. Tell me how that’s fair – because one is labeled the language arts teacher and one is labeled the reading teacher??? What this incentive pay did was divide teachers and build resentment. If parents choose teachers based on incentive pay they will be TERRIBLY disappointed.”

“My children’s science teacher at their elementary receives no bonus. She has won many awards and has been featured in the Chronicle.”

“First off, I do believe in bonuses for teachers. It’s not easy what they do everyday for our children. However, they must not be grading the teachers correctly. My husband is a writing teacher, nominated for teacher of the year for his school, has 97% passing and his school was recognized in Texas Monthly as one of the best writing schools, yet he received zero dollars as a bonus.”

“Last year I taught 2 classes of 11th grade and 3 classes of 10th grade in one of the worst schools in HISD. All core subject classes, all tested by TAKS. 100% of my students passed. My bonus? $0. I guess 100% isn’t progress.”

“It must be very subjective. I get an award every year for 100% on TAKS. Yet I received no bonus while those without 100% passing receive thousands. Morale is VERY low among most teachers.”

“Teachers who have ALWAYS had 100% pass that TAKS and Stanford didn’t get a bonus. Go figure.”

“Please explain to me how every ancillary staff and part time staff recieved more incentive pay than I did. I had 100% of my 90 students pass the math TAKS with more than 1/2 recieving commended performance. Yet I was “ranked” lower than the ancillary staff. Thanks for a great day at work!!!”

Here’s a likely looking explanation:

“The performance pay system isn’t based on passing rates on the TAKS. It’s based on scale scores and student growth compared to students in similar classrooms. If this writing teacher’s students had more growth on the TAKS and the Stanford test last year than most other comparable classrooms, he earned the bonus pay. If the teacher didn’t get that kind of growth, he didn’t get the bonus pay. This is all about rewarding the teachers who get the most improvement among students.”

Why do we pay performance bonuses? To make teachers work harder? No. It’s to reward and retain the best teachers, with an emphasis on those who teach the most important subjects: reading, writing, and arithmetic.

If the measurement being used doesn’t generate the correct result then the measurement is not correct.

In this case the measurement is clearly stilted toward teachers who work with students with low achievement histories. At-risk kids. Why? Because these kids have the most room for improvement and can improve at greater rates than kids already utilizing their potential. This can generally be correlated with kids and schools “in the rough part of town”.

While educating these kids is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, a bonus system is an inappropriate way for their teachers to receive additional compensation. Instead, teachers should be given incentives to work at low-performing schools in the form of a higher base salary. That way the bonus plan can be used to achieve its true purpose: to identify and reward the best teachers across the system.

HISD superintendent Abelardo Saavedra says, “The system is designed purposefully to be objective,” Saavedra said.

But what is the objective, Abe? Here’s another anecdote that tells me HISD is aiming at the wrong target:

Linda Burks, the 2006 Teacher of the Year at Anderson Elementary, said co-workers rallied around her last week after learning she was not among the nearly 8,000 educators districtwide to pocket a bonus.

“They were shocked,” said Burks, a fourth-grade language arts teacher. “They really thought I (should have) received something.”

Somehow that just seems right to me. What about you?

How do we know who the best teachers are? Simple. We observe them.

Interestingly, the HISD bonus system does not make use of observations as data points in determining who should receive bonus pay. This indicates that the comment that defined the system as primarily rewarding teachers who improved the bottom of the barrel is correct. This is the wrong approach.

What should be happening is that teachers should be observed frequently over the course of the school year and a standard criteria applied to those observations to determine which teachers are providing the most benefit to their students. Monthly observations seem reasonable and would give teachers 9 opportunities to demonstrate their chops.

Administrators hate this idea, of course, because it means more work for them. But the objective should be to reward the best teachers and doing that means that the “cream of the crop” must be correctly identified.

Why is it the case that only very new teachers are observed in the classroom more than once per year? This is very nearly criminally negligent. In what other profession can one work 99+% of one’s work days without being observed by one’s manager? Annual observations are completely inadequate.

Yet many schools do not even implement this feeble standard of evaluation for veteran teachers. The theory is that they’ve been there, done that, and don’t need to be observed. But the truth is that just the opposite is true. Many veteran teachers are so burnt out from the stress of their jobs that they are only minimally functional in the classroom. These teachers need to be evaluated more often than relative newcomers, not less.

That isn’t happening. One reason why is that teachers and administrators think of education as guaranteed employment. Teachers that fail to meet the minimum standards of subject competency and coverage are retained, in part, because they are deemed to be entitled to the job they’ve held for X years already.

It’s easy to understand why they feel that way – simply refer to the bullet points at the beginning of this post to see why. And yet, few other professions offer lifetime security. Fundamentally educators are not entitled to more protection than the rest of us except for one reason: we’re not paying them a salary that’s competitive with their level of education. To make up for it the system offers a back-end reward, the teacher’s retirement system, that encourages (read “demands”) that teachers stick with their profession until retirement age whether they want to or not.

That too is a sign of a broken system, like HISD’s failed performance bonus system. Superintendent Saavedra was forced to offer a left-handed apology only days after the bonus distribution information was made public, saying that:

…teachers seemed especially offended that, at a celebratory news conference, he referred to those who received the biggest bonuses as “the cream of the crop.”

“The sense I got from the e-mails is, there’s a lot of confusion out there and a misunderstanding of the system itself,” he said. “I also felt that some of my statements at the press conference were misconstrued.”

I think the problem is, Abe, that teachers understood the bonus system perfectly. In my view, the system was never intended to reward the best teachers at all; instead, it was designed as a form of scholastic welfare, one that would drive money into underachieving schools.

Not too cool.

At least HISD did something, even if it was wrong. What would be right? I’ll tell you later!


Houston ISD’s principals can expect larger bonuses and proportionally more of them will receive bonuses then did teachers:

The district plans to reward at least 250 campus principals with a minimum of $1.2 million, said HISD spokesman Terry Abbott. If those estimates hold true, that means 83 percent of principals will receive bonus pay. The average check will be $4,800.

In comparison, an estimated 58 percent of the district’s teachers earned bonuses earlier this year, and the average payout was about $1,850…

Are we to believe that principals are half-again as likely to be dedicated to their jobs and exceed expectations than teachers.

Meanwhile, HISD’s head honcho Abe Saavedra will be living well this year too:

Houston ISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra will be $67,250 richer today when the school district distributes its latest round of performance bonuses.

Saavedra’s new contract, approved by the school board in January, made him eligible for $80,000 in bonus pay based in part on students’ test scores.

As head of the state’s largest school district, Saavedra earns a base salary of $302,000. His bonus — 22 percent of his base pay — is more than almost all his teachers take home in a year.

Something doesn’t seem right.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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