Teacher Pay: When baby steps just aren’t enough

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In the 1970s, I babysat almost every night for the next-door neighbors, getting paid 50 cents an hour. I can remember Mrs. Morse coming home from her nightly Mahjong game, digging into the bottom of her purse to count out the pennies, nickels, and dimes. My sister, also a babysitter, and I would endlessly conspire to improve our pay, each looking to the other to get up the gumption to announce the hike. We thought 75 cents sounded about right. While in purely proportionate terms, it represented an outrageous hike, we were pretty sure the rates hadn't changed since before we were born.

Teachers find themselves in much the same predicament. Over the years, those at the top of the education hierarchy have allowed teacher wages to stagnate and districts are now faced with having to figure out how to close a 21 percent salary gap between teachers and other comparable professions.

Needless to say, this was a long time coming. Over the last five years, starting teacher salaries have only gone up about $200 a year on average after inflation in the large districts we track— barely enough to cover the cost of a babysitter for a few nights out a year and hardly enough to make up for the slow growth of teacher salaries during the recession.

Given all of this, the wave of teacher activism over the last year should come as no surprise. Some may view strikes and walkouts as analogous to childish temper tantrums, but the hierarchy and rigidity of school districts almost requires it. After teachers in West Virginia found their voice, teachers across the country followed suit, demanding better wages among other things.

That much of the teacher activism has occurred at the state level illuminates an important point: districts cannot on their own make the headway that's needed to restore teacher wages to their relatively healthy standing achieved in the early 1990s. States, too, need to step in and give districts the resources they need, which, let's be honest here, will require a willingness to bring in more revenue. While commendable for their symbolism, baby steps like Louisiana's $1,000 raise for teachers signed into law this week (the first statewide raise for teachers in 10 years!) constitute a drop in the bucket.

I've concluded after so many years that there are really only two factors that matter when it comes to improving the health of the teaching profession, teacher pay being one of them (the other being teacher preparation). If we want to increase the number of teachers who believe that the teaching profession is valued by society from the current abysmal 36 percent, one place to start is paying them like the professionals they are.