Attract and Retain the Best Teachers

The proclaimed purpose of teacher pay scales is to attract and retain the best teachers. Like so many things in the world of public education, this is not quite as simple as it at first sounds. Attracting and retaining are not the same. In fact, they are separate goals for two different teacher demographics and can often be at odds. The traditional salary schedule, in its purest form is biased toward retention; it usually tops out, after many years of experience and further education to the master’s degree and beyond. It may top out thirty or forty percent or more higher than the base, which is the entry for most. On the other hand, the current trend seems to favor biasing the schedule toward attraction with more money at the entry-level base and less at the top. Teachers themselves may be biased toward one or the other depending on where they are in their careers. What is needed, of course, is a reasonable balance. But what is that?

If it is most important to attract the “brightest and best” of new degree-holders (never mind that the conventional Reformist wisdom seems to be that teachers in general are the dumbest and worst) it would make sense to pump up the starting pay – make them offers they can’t refuse. It is certainly a step in the right direction, but far from a complete solution to the compensation conundrum.

It is a necessary step, not because “if you pay them they will come.” People don’t go into teaching for the money. Money is more a matter of making it affordable to teach. According to my former district’s master contract, starting pay is $31,750. Granted, there are lots of jobs that pay less, few of which require a 4-year degree and certification. Consider that by the time a teacher sets foot in the classroom, he has invested at least four years of his time and tens of thousands of dollars of treasure in preparation. College tuition and fees continue year after year to rise at a rate exceeding inflation. Graduates often face a mountain of debt to pay off at the same time that they are trying to start families and establish households. Yes, starting pay does matter to teachers early in their careers.

Incidentally, base pay is not always what it appears. The Nampa School District typifies a situation that is perhaps unique to Idaho*. The Legislature mandates a base of $30,000 to make us “competitive” with other states. This is the so-called “phony corner” of the schedule. The real base, the one that the rest of the schedule is calculated on is thousands of dollars less. For example, a first year teacher must have at least an MA+48 to receive more than $31,750. A new teacher with a BA + 12 remains frozen at $31,750 for 5 years; a BA+24 for three years; a BA +12 for 5 years; and with a BA only, he will stay in the first column, frozen at $31,750. If he completes the minimum mandatory (state law) 6 credit hours for every 5-year certificate renewal cycle, he can move over to the second column only after 6 years, however.

In my years as a Building Representative and/or negotiator, I did not hear new teachers complain about low starting pay half so much as they complained about not moving up in pay at all for several years and feeling stuck at their entry pay.

Most new teachers seem not as concerned with starting pay as with the long-term career prospects: if I stick with it and do a good job and continue my education, where will I be in 10 years, or 20, or by the time I retire?  Sure, there are some who see teaching as a temporary stop until they get into law school, or until the kids are in school, or until they inherit the farm. I particularly remember a young lady who came to teaching from the private sector, following a divorce. As Building Rep, I was polling her on something to do with the retirement plan. She said “I don’t give a **** about your silly retirement plan. Do you honestly think I am going to hang around this ******* ****- hole until I retire? God, I hope not!” The next year, she went back to the private sector, where she had been making and made again much more money. But this is the exception. Most new teachers come in with career aspirations, and if they feel, after a few years, that they have the necessary temperament and skills, they consider themselves to be in for the long haul.

If you see teaching not as a job, but as a career, those experience steps, those credit-and-degree columns, that state retirement plan, all become very important. “If I stay in the game, and if I do a good job, and if I get my MA plus, where will I end up?”

This is where the Retain part of attract-and-retain comes in. There have to be long-term goals, and they have to be stable ones. They have to lead somewhere in a predictable manner: the term I heard repeatedly at a CPRE conference a few years ago was “line of sight.” Another term was “transparency.”  Please notice that I am avoiding such threadbare terms as motivate, incentive, incentivize. I am skeptical of alternative compensation schemes that monetize every little thing; they remind me of B. F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning: “Give the pigeon a peanut and watch him perform!” They can actually have a negative influence in motivation.

A teacher can look at a traditional salary schedule and see his career laid out before him. He can read the rest of the contract and see the terms he will have to meet. Perhaps some of the much- touted alternative compensation can do this better, but I am not convinced. They may make some difference in attracting young teachers, but in retaining them? I think not.

*Nampa School District Master Contract, p 4

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One Response to Attract and Retain the Best Teachers

  1. Mohssine says:

    I agree school shulod be made more accessible for everyone not all kids are good at sitting still for long periods, reading books, copying notes, or listening while they are being talked to and that is one reason why I LOVE teaching Science! It’s a more dynamic classroom atmosphere kids can move around, use their hands, build and discover real stuff! Yes, we still have to stick to a curriculum etc, but it’s very easy (for an interested teacher) to make it a very fun and stimulating learning environment.Thanks for sharing this article:)Kristina

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