Incentive For New Teachers in Hard-To-Fill Specialties? Zero

Experience, independent research, suggest Michigan’s system doesn’t make sense

Education experts claim that the common method of paying public school teachers in the same district from a uniform pay scale is not effective, archaic and contributes to teacher shortages in some specialized positions.

Even though a subset of teaching jobs go unfilled, the annual salary of practically every Michigan public school teacher is determined by two numbers. The first is the amount of time the teacher has spent on the job, and the second is the number of college credits earned. Michigan is not the only state with a version of this policy.

Independent findings from more than one reputable research organizations suggest that other approaches to setting pay can make it easier for schools to find teachers for hard-to-staff fields.

While media outlets and some education administrators say there is a shortage of teachers, the number of applicants for open positions often tells a different story. According to school district documents, some districts can have an abundance of applications for general teaching positions but shortages in specific areas. These areas include foreign languages, special education and some skilled trades positions.

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For example, 740 people applied to Grand Rapids Public Schools for a job as an elementary school teacher, and 493 applicants sought to fill a job opening a high school teacher. But the district received no applicants for a special education teaching job at an elementary school.

Yet the contract between the district and its union specifies that all first-year teachers will be paid the same amount.

Holly Area Schools is the very rare district with a union contract that lets it pay some new teachers more. For hard-to-fill positions, the contract lets a new teacher skip the bottom rung of the seniority-based pay scale, effectively letting the district pay that person more right away.

“When teacher salary schedules first came to be about 100 years ago, they were designed to eliminate discrimination due to race, ethnicity and gender. Since such discrimination has long been illegal, there is no need for them, yet the archaic practice is still a teacher union imperative,” said Larry Sand, president of the nonprofit California Teachers Empowerment Network, in a column in the Los Angeles Daily News.

There are other research findings that suggest compensation based on salary schedules is ineffective for improving for student performance.

A Brookings Institution study released in September found that teachers who earned advanced degrees received higher financial rewards, but there was little to no evidence of “more teacher credentials making any difference for students.”

Brookings also reported that union pay scales backload pay into the later years of a teacher’s career. This is supposed to reward individuals with more money as they gain more expertise with each successive year. But this is a misalignment, according to the research organization’ findings, because the largest gains in teacher productivity tend to happen in the first three to five years of a teaching career.

The report also said that paying higher salaries for specialty subjects “would go a long way to alleviating staffing pressures.”

The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management released a study in October that found that adding incentives such as college loan forgiveness and giving bonuses were effective ways to solve hard-to-fill teaching shortages.

One Michigan public school superintendent said he thought paying teachers who take on hard-to-fill positions could create other problems.

“My fear with variable pay rates is that, assuming such a contract were negotiated, that we would soon end up with an imbalance of science, CTE [career and technical education], etc. teachers and deficits in other areas,” said Lou Steigerwald, superintendent of Norway-Vulcan Area Schools. “Additionally, in order to compete with the private sector, where science and math interested folks are also in demand, we would have to decrease elementary pay to the point where we would find few quality candidates there. One of the reasons one goes to college is to improve one's fiscal outlook. To expect folks to endeavor to earn and pay for college degrees to enter into a profession where wages are not in some fashion competitive is to engage in an effort that runs against logic. We are suffering from simple supply and demand in the areas we have problems hiring. Our demand will continue to rise with the continued retirement of baby boom era teachers.”

Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said that Steigerwald’s concerns are legitimate but there’s little reason to be worried about them anytime soon.

“The fact that there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, or applicants for some teacher vacancies suggest that schools, in fact, could lower the salary levels for those positions and not suffer from lack of supply,” Van Beek said in an email. “When they stop getting applicants, then we can start to worry.”

Van Beek said many private sector organizations have to decide how to pay employees differently based on their productiveness and demand for their talent elsewhere.

“It is a bit more work than just applying the single salary schedule to everyone, but the rest of the world has more or less figured out how to deal with it. There’s no reason schools can’t too,” he said.


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