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Teaching Poor Students: How to Make It a Prestigious, Desirable Career

A Title I for Teacher Pay Act?

School A is in a middle-class neighborhood—with all that implies. School B is in a poor one, with crime, gangs, overwhelmed parents, many children with behavior and academic problems, broken buildings, bureaucratic demands—and salaries that are lower than at School A.

Common sense and abundant evidence says that teachers with choices (mainly those with substantial experience and good performance records) will disproportionately choose to teach in schools like School A. The sad result: Many of our poorest, most vulnerable students are taught by the least experienced teachers. How can we change this? (Drafting senior teachers unwillingly, as some have proposed, will simply lead many to leave teaching—and exacerbate the teacher shortage.) And, as older teachers retire in large numbers, how can we attract to the teaching profession and to these impoverished schools a much larger share of the nation's top college graduates?

The author, a former Clinton administration budget official, argues for increasing salaries of teachers in the poorest schools by 50 percent immediately—and by another 50 percent for the most effective teachers (and those in shortage areas) in these schools, bringing top pay in poor schools to well over $100,000. To assure that these teachers who teach in these poorest of schools—and who are hired at these much higher salaries—are excellent, he proposes to restructure teaching to include a performance-based career ladder and job security provisions that more nearly match those in other careers.

The author has shopped this proposal around with educational leaders, including union leaders, politicians, and education critics. His conversations show the contours of public opinion that exist around teacher pay, teacher quality, and the conditions of teaching—and how a proposal could be shaped to reflect them. Whatever one thinks about Miller's particulars, his discussion captures the contours and tone of the current, accelerating discussion about if, and on what basis, the most effective teachers should be paid more—and under what arrangements there might be wide public support for drastically increased teacher pay.

–EDITOR

By Matthew Miller

It's two hours into the school year, and already Vince Eisman is full of regrets. As the kids play kickball at recess, the new fourth-grade teacher at Coliseum elementary school in central Los Angeles is kicking himself. Where did the time go? The "What was the most exciting thing about your summer?" exercise had taken much longer than expected, and he'd barely gotten started on his classroom rules of behavior before the break came. Still, Eisman—instantly christened Mr. "Ice-man" (a name that will stick) by one nine-year-old—is hopeful. Though they score around the 16th percentile on state achievement tests, his 20 students—nearly all Black and Latino—seem eager, with hands raised and faces bright. He'd heard horror stories about disconnected or drugged-out parents, but several introduced themselves this morning and urged him to "work 'em hard." Over the buzz of playground chatter, Eisman, 30, is excited, overwhelmed, and self-critical all at once. "Maybe I should have done the rules first," he says. "I didn't get anything done like I'd planned."

For one of L.A.'s toughest schools, Eisman was a catch. Few new teachers are finishing a master's degree in Roman history with a thesis on Augustan poetry and propaganda. Eisman had originally planned to teach college. His wife kept telling him he was great with young kids, but Eisman feared they wouldn't be stimulating enough. To test the waters, he spent a year subbing in K–12 classes while teaching two night courses in Greco-Roman history at community college. The college students seemed burned-out and flaky. The kids were a blast, and working with them stretched him like nothing he'd done before. Eisman got accepted by a "district intern program" that crash-trains uncertified newcomers in L.A., faxed his resume to schools, and was hired within days. He packed up his wife and baby and set off for pricey Tinseltown to live, somehow, on $32,000 a year.

Eisman's classroom is in a portable, prefab "bungalow," a monument to the district's failure to plan for rising enrollments. It smells of disinfectant. He and his wife spent days scrubbing off mold left by the previous occupant. Posters of Martin Luther King, Jr., Willie Mays, and Sidney Poitier dot the walls. Another poster reminds students to report any weapon they see. His kids work in groups, "interviewing" each other about their vacations.

"Are you gonna stay here?" a boy named Mikhel suddenly asks. They've been abandoned by so many teachers, Eisman explains later. Not to mention family members. "Yes," Eisman tells Mikhel, "I'm here for good."

Urban America better hope so. No one should need much convincing that schools in the nation's poor neighborhoods are in crisis. Students attending them are a full three grade levels behind students in higher-income areas, according to a recent Department of Education study. "The numbers tell a sad and alarming story," concluded Education Week in a special report a few years ago. "Most fourth-graders who live in U.S. cities can't read and understand a simple children's book, and most eighth-graders can't use arithmetic to solve a practical problem."

Teacher Quality: The Next Frontier for Social Justice

There are probably a hundred things we need to do for these schools, and 10 big things that could make a difference, but if you could focus on only one thing, the most important would be teacher quality. The teacher question is so vital that the Hart-Rudman Commission, the same group whose report presciently stressed America's vulnerability to major terror attacks, defined teacher quality as an issue of national security. Two million new teachers must be recruited in the next decade—700,000 of them in urban districts—thanks to a coming wave of retirements and rising enrollments. That means that fully two-thirds of today's teacher corps will turn over. Replacing them with top talent and not simply warm bodies is a tall order, especially in urban districts, where half the new teachers quit within three years. With research showing that half the achievement gap facing poor and minority students is due not to poverty or family conditions, but to systematic differences in teacher quality, the question of teacher recruitment in poor schools is more than just the biggest issue in education. It's the next great frontier for social justice.

To focus on teacher quality is not to be a "teacher basher," or to denigrate the thousands of talented and dedicated teachers who have been working their hearts out for years under awful conditions to make a difference for poor children. But as good teachers in these schools have told me with passion, the scale of the need is immense. The incompetence of many of their colleagues is appalling. And the obstacles to solving the problem are deep.

These obstacles start with the nation's schools of education, our major supplier of teachers. One study found that of every 600 people who enter a four-year teaching program, 180 finish, 72 become teachers, and only 40 are still in the classroom several years later. The education schools typically feature self-contained curricula and extra requirements for education courses, partly to avoid losing revenue to other parts of the university. One result: Half of middle school teachers and a third of high school teachers majored only in education, not in the subject matter they need to impart.

"Out-of-field" teaching is widespread, and disproportionately affects poor children. The numbers are staggering. One federal study of grades 7 to 12 estimated conservatively that 18 million children were being taught core academic courses by teachers who lacked even a minor in the subject—including one-in-four math students, four-in-ten life sciences students, more than half of history students, and six-in-ten physical science students. Only 41 percent of U.S. students are taught math by teachers who majored in math, versus 71 percent internationally. Guess which kids in America don't get taught by the math majors?

Moreover, the state competency requirements that graduates of such programs must meet are a mockery. Only 29 states require candidates to take a test in the area they plan to teach. Nearly all are so easy to pass that they keep only "illiterates" out of teaching, as the late Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said. Yet even these minimal standards are routinely waived to allow the issuance of "emergency credentials," so that in our biggest cities many teachers aren't properly trained or credentialed. In Los Angeles, for example, 16.7 percent of teachers had emergency credentials (in 2001–02), compared to 9.8 percent statewide. In New York state, 11.7 percent of teachers in high poverty schools are on emergency credentials; in other schools only 0.1 percent of teachers are on emergency credentials. The most severe shortages exist in specialties like math, science, and bilingual and special education, where people trained as teachers find their skills command a premium outside the classroom. "Why is it that there are still incompetent people in classrooms?" asked Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Because there's a tremendous shortage, and because people who are not competent in the first instance are hired to babysit. It's tragic."

*  *  *

Other inanities make matters worse. Fifty state bureaucracies certify teachers, a patchwork scheme that often forces even previously licensed arrivals to jump through crazy hoops, like pricey night courses. Districts often won't pay such incoming teachers commensurate with their seniority. As a result, many women (who still make up 70 percent of the teacher corps) leave the field if their husbands relocate. The situation is so bad that big cities routinely recruit overseas. New York has recruited in Canada, Austria, and the Carribean; Philadelphia in India and Spain; Los Angeles in the Phillipines; Houston in Russia. Chicago in recent years has interviewed in 25 countries, many less developed than the United States.

Add to the mix the fact that teachers with seniority and talent often leave troubled city schools for the more attractive working conditions and professional environments available in nearby suburbs, and the grim bottom line emerges: The neediest children in America could easily go from kindergarten to sixth grade and beyond with a brand new, untrained rookie or "emergency" teacher "teaching" them each year. What could be more unjust?

Yet if it's possible, things will soon get worse because many of the best teachers in the system will shortly retire. Until the 1960s and 1970s, schools got a huge hidden subsidy because many careers weren't open to women and minorities. Now, people who might once have taught science and social studies become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Urban teaching salaries that start, on average, at $31,567 and rise to $53,248 simply don't cut it.* Though many of today's talented teachers chose their work for love rather than money, it stands to reason that in terms of sheer brainpower, the current teacher corps can't match one inadvertently subsidized by bias.

Crisis or Opportunity?

If we were serious as a country, we would seize this moment, at the cusp of a dramatic generational turnover in the teaching ranks, to lure top-caliber college graduates to our toughest classrooms.

Money will need to be part of this, and we'll get to that. But let's stipulate first that pay isn't everything. Teachers are the only people I've ever met who routinely say, without irony, things similar to what one new teacher confided about her work: "It's so fulfilling, it's awesome!" For many, job security, good health and pension benefits, and summers off each year are worth the income trade-off.

In addition, getting serious about teacher quality will require a host of non-financial reforms. For starters, the human resource departments in big districts tend to be so poorly managed that top candidates flee. Then there's the lack of prestige. Tell them you're a teacher at a party, said Jene Galvin, a 30-year veteran of Cincinnati's public schools, "and you can see the look on their faces—like this guy couldn't do anything else or the only thing he could do was teach and the only place he could get a job was in Cincinnati's inner city. That is reality."

In the inner cities, it's often working conditions that scare people off. When a district's de facto recruiting pitch is, "Join us and you'll have the chance to work in dilapidated schools in unsafe neighborhoods under incompetent supervisors," it's hardly surprising when talented people look elsewhere. Harold Levy, chancellor of New York City schools from 1999 to 2002, told me that when the city did a study asking teachers why they had left, the item mentioned most often was, "I don't like bringing my car into that neighborhood where I have to work." Discipline is a huge problem, and teachers have few ways to get the most disruptive kids, who ruin the learning environment for everyone, out of class. Then there's sheer volume: A high school social studies or English teacher commonly teaches nearly 200 kids a day, in five or six classes that can each exceed 35 students. "Those numbers after a while wear you down, and so many of them are high-need," said Steve Steinberg, a 15-year veteran in L.A. "That's why the best teachers end up at the best suburban schools."

Pockets of improvement exist. Connecticut, for example, has made a systematic effort over 20 years to raise pay and professional standards at the same time, and urban children there score better than in most other states. Under former New York City Superintendent Rudy Crew, and then his successor, Harold Levy, a "Chancellor's District" of low performing schools in New York City received special attention, and teachers were offered a 15 percent pay hike to take on the challenge (including a longer work week). Though Levy told me in retrospect that 15 percent wasn't enough to staff these schools properly, the schools showed twice the rate of gain of other low performing schools in New York City in reading and math. The New Teacher Project, started by Michele Rhee and Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, has worked with a number of cities to attract mid-career professionals to the classroom; in New York City, these "teaching fellows" accounted for one in four new hires in 2002, a remarkable achievement.

But here's the point: If we're honest, none of these developments, promising as they seem, can be brought to the scale of today's need. In other words, just as it is true that salary isn't all that matters, it is equally true that non-salary measures alone will never suffice to attract and retain hundreds of thousands of talented new teachers for poor districts. When it comes to the shortage specialties, and the nation's toughest schools, there's no avoiding this reality: If we're serious, we need to talk about money.

*  *  *

This shouldn't come as news. In 1970 in New York City, a starting lawyer going into a prestigious firm and a starting teacher going into public education had a differential in their entry salary of about $2,000, said Harold Levy. Today, between salary and bonus, that starting lawyer makes $145,000, while the starting teacher in New York City earns roughly $40,000. "Why would we think the laws of supply and demand have been repealed with respect to public education and with respect to the labor market here," Levy told me. "We have teachers who have to supplement their income by being waiters and waitresses. That's obscene."

Conservatives I've talked with agree that poor children deserve better; they also appreciate that market forces largely determine where the top talent goes. Look at the table (below). When the suburbs (1) pay more, (2) have better working conditions, and (3) serve easier-to-teach kids who bring fewer problems to school, we're essentially relying on missionaries to bring quality instruction to urban America. How many more years need to pass before we admit that the missionary "plan" isn't working?

Teacher Salaries
Urban vs. Nearby Suburban Districts

2002-2003 Contract Year

District Starting
Salary
Maximum
Salary
New York, N.Y.
Scarsdale, N.Y.
$39,000
$41,488
$81,232
$106,305
Chicago, Ill.
New Trier Township, Ill.
$34,538
$39,608
$63,276
$94,545
Philadelphia, Penn.
Upper Merion, Penn.
$33,249
$35,025
$69,056
$84,605
Washington, D.C.
Montgomery County, Md.
$31,892
$36,841
$62,175
$82,263
Cleveland, Ohio
Shaker Heights, Ohio
$32,684
$34,521
$69,325
$79,595
Boston, Mass.
Newton, Mass.
$38,934
$36,866
$78,934
$77,077
Los Angeles, Calif.
Santa Monica/Malibu, Calif.
$39,974
$39,021
$70,145
$78,442

Source: District personnel and human resources offices; local union contracts.

Note: Starting salary is for a certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Maximum salary is the highest possible based on a ten-month, normal length day contract. To be eligible for this maximum, a teacher typically will have a doctorate degree and at least fifteen years of experience. The maximum may also include bonuses for longetivity or merit.

 

Yet conservatives rightly worry that pouring more money into today's system subsidizes mediocrity rather than luring and retaining talent, especially when a toxic combination of inefficient state tenure laws, union rules, and inadequate funding of teacher evaluation make it next to impossible to fire bad teachers. While national data are not available, in a recent five-year period, only 62 of California's 220,000 tenured teachers were dismissed. Partly that's because performance evaluation is a charade, with only a handful of teachers receiving "unsatisfactory" ratings each year. To be fair, unions say that it's not always their fault. In many cities, teachers are on probation for the first few years, meaning they can be fired with few hassles. When poor performers aren't dismissed, it's because districts are desperate. "They're holding their breath up to a mirror to see if it's there," said Sandra Feldman. "They're putting warm bodies in classrooms and then beating up on the unions because the [dismissal] process takes too long."

The right conclusion is that there is no way to get top talent without paying up. But that doesn't mean simply throwing money at the problem—we need money wedded to (and, in effect, helping to buy) sensible reforms. The obvious "grand bargain" here would be to make more cash available for teachers in exchange for flexibility in how the money is doled out. That means scrapping the standard "lockstep" teacher pay scale, under which a teacher with a physics degree has to be paid the same as a P.E. teacher if both have the same years of service and number of graduate credits, even though the science grad has lucrative options outside teaching. It also means making it much easier to dismiss low-performers that even union leaders agree are blighting the lives of up to 10 percent of urban children.

When I first posed this deal to Sandra Feldman a few years ago, she told me that teachers were so underpaid that you'd first need to hike salaries across-the-board by 30 percent—then she'd be willing to discuss serious pay differentials. At the time, I thought, at least that's an offer. You can put a number on it and start a negotiation. Some educators I talked with felt that Feldman was shooting for the moon. But after reflection, and conversations with more urban school officials, teachers, and analysts, I've concluded that Feldman wasn't aiming high enough.

*  *  *

So what if we were serious? What if we owned up to the reality that when Los Angeles raised its starting salaries, as it did recently, from $37,000 to nearly $40,000, or when New York raised them, as it did, from $33,000 to $39,000, and when both cities' salaries top out at $70,000 to $80,000 after more than 20 years in the classroom, this has not and will not have much affect on the career choices of college graduates looking at teaching, and therefore cannot begin to dent the injustice we're perpetuating in poor schools? What would it sound like if we were serious? It might sound something like this:

The goal would be to make teaching poor children the career of choice for talented young Americans who want to make a difference with their lives and make a good living while doing so. Today we have something called Title I through which the federal government provides supplementary funds to poor schools. A serious plan would launch a new program that we could think of as "Title I for Teachers." The federal government would raise salaries for every teacher in poor schools in America by 50 percent. But this offer would be conditioned on two fundamental reforms. First, teachers and their unions would have to agree to raise the pay of the top half of performers in the teacher corps (and those in shortage specialities) another 50 percent on average. Second, the unions would have to streamline the dismissal process for poor performing teachers to a fair, swift, four-to-six- month period.

This would mean that in a city like Los Angeles—where starting teachers earn nearly $40,000, and top out, after 25 years and a Ph.D., at $70,000—there would be a new deal. Starting teachers would earn $60,000. The top performing half of teachers, and those in shortage specialities, would make $85,000-$90,000 a year on average. The best teachers at the top of the salary schedule—not all, mind you, but the best—would earn $130,000, $140,000, even $150,000 a year. The aim would be to have the nation commit to making America's best teachers of poor children millionaires over their careers—that is, able to put aside enough in savings at those wages to put $1 million in the bank by the time they retire. We need nothing less if we're to change the way this career is viewed by our brightest college graduates. Some people may say this is crazy. But what is really crazy is that we've waited this long. After all, we've long paid market rates for talent the nation needs when it comes to researchers at the National Institutes of Health or economists at the Federal Reserve—and "combat pay" is a time-honored practice when we ask Americans to take on the toughest assignments.

Rather than be embarrassed to say what they do for a living, teachers of poor children would be held in awe—both for the commitment they've made to one of the nation's most important professions, and for the prestige and rewards their nation has decided this calling merits. We would honor our great teachers the way we honor our great entrepreneurs, our great scientists, our great lawyers.

This new deal for teachers of poor children would require many changes to make it happen. Teachers and their representatives would need to embrace a new bargain under which the profession becomes a true profession—with the rewards it deserves—in exchange for the kind of accountability and performance assessment that almost never takes place today. And money alone isn't the answer. We would also need an array of reforms to support good teaching in the classroom, including safe schools in good repair, career paths that let top teachers take on more responsibility, and new freedom to discipline the few children who spoil everyone's chance to learn.

Critics are sure to raise plenty of questions about such a plan—why this district and not that; how can we assess teachers fairly—and it will be important to discuss the details of how we get from here to there. But the "there" must be non-negotiable.

This plan to make teaching poor children the most exciting career in America will cost roughly $30 billion a year—a seven percent increase in the nation's K–12 spending that would buy a 1,000 percent revolution in the way teaching is viewed. It would lift the federal share of K–12 spending from seven percent to 14 percent—which is only right, since poor districts can't foot the bill themselves. When we're failing 10 million poor children, the problem is national. And a national problem like this will take national resources to solve it.

There's the plan. We'll also toss in a 50 percent pay hike for principals, taking them from $80,000 to $120,000 on average (with the nation's best getting upwards of $200,000), because there's a terrible shortage of quality principals, as well (this costs only a few billion, since there are far fewer principals than teachers, and I've included it in the $30 billion).

Now, before we get into what it would take to implement this vision, let's stop for a moment and see how it stacks up against other teacher quality "plans." President Bush offers small tax breaks for classroom supplies, nice but symbolic plans to inch up "Troops to Teachers," and an unfunded mandate ordering states to have a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who's made education a major theme of his presidential campaign, offers rhetoric that honors the spirit of the idea I've outlined while offering $3 billion a year, as opposed to $30 billion, toward this purpose—a resource gap typical of other Democratic proposals. Compare this proposal also to the handful of struggling experiments around the country that purport to test the impact of "pay differentials," but that involve amounts far too marginal (usually bonuses of $1,000 or $2,000) to give teachers and their unions any incentive to make it work.

Building a Consensus

We know for a start, then, that we're operating at a level that's serious. What do those on the front lines think? To find out, I shopped the idea in conversations with superintendents who either today or recently have been responsible for 2.6 million urban schoolchildren, union leaders who have represented more than 1 million teachers, and assorted education experts and teachers. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

"I'd endorse something like that in a hot minute," said Day Higuchi, who was president of Los Angeles' teachers union from 1996 to 2002. Higuchi thought the impact would be substantial:

Right now L.A. Unified is the employer of last resort. People who can't get jobs elsewhere come here. If we did this, we'd become the employer of first resort and the percentage of credentialed teachers that you can hire initially—teachers in other districts who have a good record they bring with them and a credential—and your more high-powered college students will be taking the job. The flush-out rate is tremendous. At least a quarter of the teachers who try to become teachers in L.A. Unified don't make it through the first year. Half of them are gone by the third year. So if you had an influx of new talent, they would stick.

A similar reaction came from Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. "There's very little incentive outside of pure altruism" to go into teaching, Duncan explained. "It would dramatically change the face of the teacher profession."

Rod Paige, secretary of education in the Bush administration and the longtime superintendent in Houston before that, was also impressed with the concept. Although Paige didn't like the idea of it being a federal plan funded with new money, preferring the funds to be shifted from current spending, he went on to say that the federal government obviously has a role; that famous 1983 report, he said, was called A Nation At Risk , not 50 States At Risk. In the end, Paige said, maybe if the plan redirected part of today's seven percent federal contribution toward something like this, and then added some more to sweeten the pot, it might be a promising way to go. But Paige felt strongly that state and local governments needed to have some "skin in the game" or else it would be a "gravy train."

*  *  *

These reactions suggest that we have the makings of something constructive. My talks with educators on the challenges they see suggest the contours of the conversation we'd need and the sense that a deal is doable. The biggest concerns revolved around two questions: How do we decide which teachers are better performers—and who decides?

As a threshold matter, the fact that union leaders felt it made sense to move toward serious pay differentials for teachers was important. When I talked to teachers, superintendents, and even secretaries of education, I said to Sandra Feldman, they said that when they go into the faculty lounge at a school and ask, who are the best teachers in the school, everybody knows, and there's a consensus. Do you feel that's true? I asked her.

"Absolutely true," Feldman said.

"So people know there are differences in quality or impact?"

"Absolutely right." Feldman also agreed that in a sense it was unfair that these better teachers weren't getting rewarded via higher pay now. But you still have to find a way of doing it that people can buy into, she said, and that doesn't seem like cronyism. To Feldman, part of the answer is to raise pay substantially for designated shortage specialties, like math, science, and bilingual education and for teachers in the most challenging, impoverished schools. The other promising path was differentiated roles. A talented classroom teacher might spend part of her time developing curriculum, she said. A great math teacher, where there's a tremendous need, could become a special coach or resource person for the subject at her site. Others might earn designation as mentors.

Ted Mitchell, president of Occidental College and former dean of the UCLA School of Education, said we might reach consensus more easily by not trying to nail down every gradation. "There's a virtue in identifying these teachers by working from the ends to the middle, but not trying to get to a line between ‘good' teachers and ‘bad' teachers," Mitchell said.

Everybody agrees that there are some groups of bad teachers. Everybody agrees that there is some group of super-star teachers. So let's work at identifying those and let's just acknowledge that in the middle it's probably too hard to make fine-grained distinctions in teacher performance. So we're not talking about merit pay for every teacher at the school site and having to make determinations about whether Sally Smith teaching seventh-grade social studies deserves a better raise than Paul Jones teaching eighth-grade algebra. But if one of them can be acknowledged as a super-star teacher then they go in this other category, and if one of them is regarded as substandard by their peers then we get rid of them.

To gauge conservative reaction I spoke with Chester E. "Checker" Finn, a leading school reformer on the right. Finn is president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation and served as assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration. "The bad part is a 50 percent boost for just showing up for work," Finn said, "without any reference to whether anybody you teach learns a damned thing. That's the big problem here."

I told Finn this was essentially the incentive I was offering—making the offer so compelling, the ante so rich, that it was a clear "win" for a union to bring it back to their members, in exchange for real reform in pay and dismissal practices. To be sure, I told him, I had worried at first, too, about wastefully paying up for mediocrity. But most observers told me the turnover in big districts is so high that within five years you'd have flushed out many of the bad teachers anyway. To the extent that this plan's higher pay lowered turnover, the ability to dismiss poor performers more easily still gave us the chance to lure a new corps of talent under this proposal and start anew.

Finn wasn't done venting. "A lot of them are inept and ineffective and unmotivated and could care less," Finn said of today's teachers. Many Americans, he said, see teachers working five hours a day, 180 days a year, with little to show for it in terms of what children are learning. "I don't think you're going to get a real good reception for just paying a whole bunch for showing up without any connection to kids learning or working longer or doing more of something."

"If you wanted to make it really interesting," Finn added, "you'd surrender job security and tenure in return for this raise."

The swap here ought to be you take a risk with your employment and you don't have to be retained if you're not good at what you do. If you are and you get retained, you get paid a whole bunch more money. My version of this has always been that if it's too heavy-duty for current teachers to swallow that trade-off, make this a whole parallel-personnel system for new ones coming in and for the existing ones that want to do it.

How might that work in practice? I asked.

"Any current teacher is free to join this new system on its terms," Finn said, "or stick with the old arrangements in which they have high security and low pay. That's just a political accommodation to an existing workforce for whom this might be too abrupt a shift. Obviously, everybody would opt into the higher pay part if that were the only part. If you're into a mix of higher pay and reduced job security and higher performance expectations, then you have to go through a calculus. Over time you'll get a very different kind of person into teaching under that system."

"It sounds tempting from a union point of view," said Sandra Feldman of a two-track approach. "The more volunteerism you can get in a system like this, the easier it is to sell. But I worry about people working together at a school level. I worry that something like that could create resentment between the people in the different tracks."

Roy Romer, current superintendent of Los Angeles schools and also the former governor of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was also drawn to a two-track approach. "If you've got to pay this to the existing people with the existing work rules and the existing contract, it's wasted," Romer said.

You've got to say, we're going to divide it. Here's the pasture over here. For those of you who want to stay, fine. This is a new pasture and here's what you've got to do to join this pasture and here's the reward for it. First of all, you've got to demonstrate that you have content knowledge. If you don't have it, you don't get paid for it. Secondly, you've got to accept the fact that this is not a six-hour work day and that there is a commitment to a different hourly schedule and an 11-month year and 30 days for vacation. It's a new annual contract. Third, you have got to assume responsibility for a personal relationship to the students. They have to have access to you and you have to have concern for them. There is absolute research-based evidence that many kids don't learn because nobody gives them a feeling that they're worthwhile and the safety of an adult who cares for them. I simply say you don't get into this [new high-paying system] unless you commit to it [time-wise] in certain fundamental ways.

Both Sandra Feldman and Harold Levy spoke about the need for poor students to have more time with teachers, a proposition teachers are perfectly open to, Feldman said, so long as they get paid for it, as this plan would assure. Research shows, for example, that disadvantaged kids lose lots of learning in the summer. Good summer schools, Saturday morning and after-school programs, and even Romer-style commitments to individual students might all be aspects of a big new bargain. Both union and district leaders told me they thought virtually every new hire would opt into the new track if it were voluntary, along with perhaps a quarter of the existing senior teachers, meaning that you'd have the bulk of the teacher corps on the new regime within five years.

*  *  *

The role of test scores in teacher ratings spurred predictable debate. Superintendents, along with conservative reformers, wanted test scores given serious weight. At the same time, they recognized current limits to so-called "value added analysis"—the effort, pioneered by Tennessee researcher William Sanders, to track the impact of an individual teacher on her students each year. In theory, this is the holy grail of "accountability," and thus the dream basis for performance pay. "There's just no reliable way of doing that right now," Sandra Feldman told me. This wasn't only a union view. Joseph Olchefske, until recently the superintendent in Seattle, has studied the issue, and he felt it would be hard to bring this measure down to the level of the individual teacher. Others think individual value-added measures may soon be practical. Day Higuchi, the longtime L.A. union leader, argued that in elementary school, where children basically have only one teacher, we could constructively measure that teacher's impact if we got the testing right.

Finn and others suggested a blended approach to teacher assessment. "You could have a mixture of value-added analysis at the school level, which is clearly going to be done," said Finn, "combined with some other kind of performance reviews of the individuals within the school." There seemed to be ways to reach common ground here. "It would be a fatal mistake not to include student learning outcomes as the ultimate test of this," said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teacher's Union, who has spearheaded union reform efforts for two decades. "It would be equally fatal to use only test scores because you would have a huge invitation to cheating and manipulation—and nobody is better at creative insubordination than school people."

Urbanski, with others, said we need to depolarize the testing argument. Test scores should be part of the teacher assessment, but so should other indicators that educators and the public consider germane—such as dropout rates, graduation rates, peer review, classroom practice, and student work. Linda Darling Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, suggested a process of peer review like that done for teachers granted the elite National Board Certification. It's a process many teachers respect, because other teachers are conducting the assessment. But Romer, along with other superintendents, didn't think anything modeled on the National Board system could suffice because it doesn't include student outcomes. "That's what's happened here time and time again," said San Diego's superintendent Alan Bersin. "You start out with a good idea, but it reduces itself to who controls the determination—it becomes a power issue and student issues fall off the agenda. You've got to make this outcome-driven."

"Blended systems are fine," concluded Arthur Levine of Columbia University's Teachers College. "But don't give away the store. If student achievement is the most important thing we care about, that's got to be a major part of the reason for the improvement in salaries."

*  *  *

One promising model that honors the contours of this discussion has been developed by the Milken Family Foundation, under the leadership of Lowell Milken (brother of former financier Michael), and Lewis Solmon, a Milken foundation executive and former dean of UCLA's School of Education. Called the "Teacher Advancement Program" (TAP), it features career paths, intensive professional development, ongoing evaluation, and differential compensation. In the 2003–2004 school year, TAP was being piloted in 54 schools in Arizona, South Carolina, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, and Florida, with 14 more schools slated to begin the program in the 2004-2005 school year (including several in an additional state, Minnesota). Seventy-five percent of the teachers have to vote in favor of the program before TAP will come in to a school. In the first year, teachers are trained in the concept, modify the evaluation criteria to suit their school's needs, and select mentor and master teachers. The second year, TAP starts conducting and honing the teacher evaluations, which occur six to 10 times a year; in year three, it phases in performance pay. "We do it slowly," Solmon told me. "From the bottom up rather than the top down."

Under the plan, 50 percent of a teacher's bonus goes for the teacher's skills and knowledge, as reflected in the evaluations, including extensive classroom observation. The other 50 percent is for student "value-added" (30 percent for school-wide measures, 20 percent for the individual teacher). Mentor and master teachers work with junior colleagues to improve areas of weakness. For professional development, TAP alters the schedule so that every week there are two to five hours where teachers are out of their classrooms, meeting in cluster groups with mentor or master teachers to solve problems they're having. It's too soon to gauge TAP's impact, of course, and local financial constraints mean its pay scales and bonuses (up to $20,000) offer far less upside than the magnitudes we're discussing. But early signs are promising. In one district in Arizona, for example, the reform has prompted some experienced teachers who appreciate TAP's emphasis on both professional development and on being rewarded for their effectiveness to move from wealthier schools without TAP to poorer schools with TAP, reversing the usual flow.

Moving from the question of "how" to "who," the superintendents all told me that principals need to be the final arbiter of teacher performance—a sticking point with the unions. The problem with giving principals exclusive control, said Sandra Feldman, is that many teachers feel they are bozos who don't know the first thing about good teaching. Jene Galvin, the 35-year Cinncinnati schools veteran, thought the millionaire teacher plan was a "home run idea," but said he was with Feldman on principals. "We don't look at the principals and really believe that they are the experts on pedagogy or classroom teaching or classroom management," Galvin told me. "The reason is they just didn't do it very long." An obvious answer here is to have peer evaluators play a serious role in teacher ratings. In the Milken program, for example, mentor and master teachers do the evaluations along with principals. "I'm sick of this argument that the principals are bozos," Finn said, when I played back these critiques. But this comment notwithstanding, Finn felt, along with other leaders in the education community I spoke with, that these implementation challenges seemed surmountable. So I asked Finn if this entire new compensation deal were done along the lines we'd discussed, as a parallel track, is it right to say it's an approach he would not feel uncomfortable with?

"No," Finn said, "I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with it, provided it included the ability for managers of schools to have a whole lot of control over who is working in their school."

All this suggests what the contours of negotiation would sound like, with enough positive noises to think progress is possible. As Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan summed it up, "If people couldn't figure that out, shame on us."

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My instinct would be to roll out this agenda via a federal challenge. A real "education president" would say, "We're putting this pot of money on the table for those communities that can come together around a plan to meet its conditions and make it work." This could reverse the ordinary political dynamics in which unions and district managers play an inside game without broad public awareness or pressure. Now, instead, parents, local media, and business leaders could ask their superintendent, school board, and union leaders why they weren't figuring out a way to make use of these billions of dollars to improve local schools. Rank-and-file teachers would have a huge stake in the plan's adoption, since they'd stand to lose the chance to earn an extra $20,000 to $50,000 a year or more. This constituency might help change internal union politics, creating incentives for union leaders to find ways to speedily dismiss poor performers.

There are other benefits. This plan could lure some talent from the suburbs toward higher paying jobs in the city, which would be a reversal from current norms. It could draw a critical mass of America's best young talent to its toughest neighborhoods, where they would doubtless apply their energies to problems that go beyond the confines of the schools. "The inadequate development of the human resources of the children of poor families," said economist Arthur Okun in 1974, "is one of the most serious inefficiencies of the American economy." Thirty years later nothing has changed. Corporate America spends $80 billion a year retraining high school graduates to work in modern industry. Thirty billion dollars to attract and retain great teachers for poor kids may be the best long-term economic investment we'll ever make. "It's not like there's a constitutional requirement that we only provide 7 or 8 percent of the funding for public education," Senator John Edwards told me. "It's a mindset."

Columbia's Arthur Levine predicts that teacher unions will be receptive to this kind of proposal:

There are real questions about their future and they're not dumb. My guess is that they're going to be more flexible in all kinds of issues, particularly if they bring a benefit to their members. The harder part of what you're talking about is getting government to put up the money, not getting unions to compromise. Who's getting bad teachers in the United States? Poor people. They don't vote. The reality is we talk about it a lot but we don't care. So why would we pay for them to get good teachers if they're satisfied the way things are?

*  *  *

I recently caught up with Vince Eisman, the teacher I met on his first day as a teacher in 1999. Now he was 34, starting his fourth year, and he was considered a star. His principal hailed him. He had won local accolades. His colleagues regarded him as a leader. He also told me he was planning to leave the Los Angeles school system at the end of the year.

It was a hundred things, really. "I love teaching in the inner city," Eisman told me. "I've loved teaching these kids." But he's tired. Tired of the lack of parental support. Tired of running out of paper in February and of not having pencils for his class. Fresh budget cuts were making it worse. Eisman had hoped to buy a house, but on his salary it was out of the question. The federal government had a small program that gave teachers dibs on repossessed homes, but they were in such unsafe neighborhoods, the idea was laughable. Eisman's mentor had urged him not to give up on teaching entirely, to at least try it where the whole package wasn't so hard. Eisman planned to move to a rural district upstate, where the quality of life was better, the children less troubled, the houses actually affordable.

I asked Eisman what he was earning. He'd come in at $32,000, I recalled. Now, he said, he was at $47,000. I thought about the plan we've been discussing. What if he'd come in at $60,000, I asked, and was up a similar $15,000 from that? "Would it be different if you were now earning $75,000?" I asked. His tone changed instantly.

"Totally different, completely different," Eisman said. "I would stay teaching in L.A. I love what I'm doing. $75,000 would make my humble little family very content. All those moments when I'm asking myself is this really worth it would be gone."


Matthew Miller, a syndicated columnist, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and former official in the Clinton administration's budget office, is author of The 2% Solution: Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, (PublicAffairs) from which this article is adapted with permission. In the book, he argues for redirecting 2% of the U.S. gross domestic product to imaginatively solve the nation's greatest problems. In addition to the proposal described in this article for spending nearly $30 billion on a Title I for Teacher Pay Act, he offers proposals on universal health care, a living wage for low-paid workers, and campaign finance reform. With the "change" left from these and other proposals, he recommends paying for universal preschool and repairing the nation's school buildings.

*These data are from the 2002 AFT salary survey. On average in the 100 largest cities, teachers with a bachelor's degree start at $31,567 and those with a master's degree can earn up to $53,248. A small percentage of teachers, those with doctoral degrees, earn more. (back to article)

This very effective and nationally recognized program was profiled in the Winter 2002 issue of American Educator. Unfortunately, the school district has since dismantled and eliminated it. (back to article)