TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

What teachers really want: It isn’t just higher salaries

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Every now and then, conventional wisdom gets it wrong. Concerns about an anticipated exodus of teachers have sparked many discussions about how to retain teachers, with most solutions focusing on raising teacher pay and providing other direct benefits like mental health days. Yet a new survey presented in an Annenberg working paper by Virginia Lovison and Cecilia Mo suggests that what may actually appeal most to teachers isn't so much pay as having more supports available for their students.

The survey asked the 1,000 teacher respondents to choose between two hypothetical and largely identical schools, similar except on a few key variables. For example, Schools A and B might be the same in every way except that one has a nurse while the other doesn't, one has higher class sizes than the other, and one offers a higher salary than the other. The survey presented different scenarios of school characteristics from which teachers had to choose to hone in on what was most important to them.

The full list of possible variables from which teachers were asked to choose were:

  • A school nurse;
  • A higher or lower salary (e.g., 10% more or less than your current position);
  • Full-time support in the teacher's classroom for special education students from a paraprofessional or from a special education co-teacher;
  • One or two full-time school counselors;
  • Changes to class size (e.g., three students more or fewer);
  • Instructional coaching; and,
  • Childcare subsidies for the teacher's own children ($1.5k or $3k per child).

It turns out that a lot of the non-pay variables proved more appealing than the prospect of a 10% raise. At the top of teachers' wish lists were more school counselors, a school nurse, and in-class special education specialists—all supports that not only benefit students, but also take some of the non-instructional burden off of teachers' shoulders.

Of course, all of these supports cost money, some more than others. To estimate how much teachers value each support, the survey asked teachers to choose between a school that provides a particular support compared to a school that lacked the support, but offered a salary increase to get to the bottom of the tradeoffs teachers really were prepared to make. Separately from the survey, to estimate the cost of each support (e.g., a school nurse), the researchers used average wage data from the federal government and divided the cost by 33 teachers (33 being the national average number of teachers in a school, since most benefits would be distributed across all teachers in that school).

Not all the most popular supports were worth their cost. While a full-time special education co-teacher proved to be the most valuable support to classroom teachers (as attractive as a 20% raise), the actual cost of providing a full time special education teacher to each teacher exceeded what teachers would have been willing to forego in terms of a raise. On the other hand, the most "cost-effective" options were school nurses and school counselors (as well as instructional coaching, which was relatively inexpensive but also not as valuable to teachers).

Childcare benefits were also appealing to teachers with children: they would be willing to substitute a 10% raise for a $3k childcare benefit, a benefit districts rarely offer. While childfree teachers understandably didn't assign much value to this benefit, they were more likely to choose a school that offered it than one that didn't, all else equal.

Preferences on paper do not always translate into real choices in practice (just like when we say we want to eat healthier but opt for a burger over a salad). And while this study tells us what teachers would prefer over a raise, that likely does not mean that they would be willing to take a pay cut to obtain these services; people tend to value what they already have, in this case, their current salary. But this does suggest that districts and schools already offering these supports should advertise them during recruiting, and that when considering where dollars should go to retain teachers, salaries shouldn't be the only option on the table.