Pay the exceptionally effective exceptionally well.
Academic achievement, secondary school graduation and college entrance rates are alarmingly low in Nevada. And required remediation, for those few who do go to college, is dismayingly high.
These conditions place Nevada at the bottom of national and international education measures. While pockets of promise exist among charter schools and in smaller districts, on balance, Nevada education is failing and there presently is little prospect of significant change.
Currently debated reforms promise a little bit for everyone. A dollop of expanded Kindergarten and English Language Learning here and a spoonful of smaller classes or a little voucher plan there. None of these ideas are in themselves bad, although some are wasteful. The problem is that — in their totality — they are too timid.
Incremental change will not solve the problem. Obama’s “Race to the Top” program provided incentives for school change. Regrettably, Nevada, though applying, missed this train. Thus, something audacious is still needed: a solution as bold as Nevada’s education problems are large.
An acceptable solution, however dramatic, must also promise significantly higher achievement, be financially responsible, facilitate accountability and prove acceptable to a broad political spectrum.
One big idea meets these criteria: dramatically increasing the pay of effective teachers.
An effective classroom teacher trumps all other in-school conditions: smaller classes, new technology, professional development — whatever. Effective teachers have been found to add a half-year to a child’s achievement beyond that which would conventionally be expected.
In addition, the learning gained from effective teachers lasts through college and contributes to higher lifetime earnings.
Nothing equals the return on investment like hiring larger numbers of effective teachers.
The practical path to adding numerous highly effective instructors is to pay them an enormous amount — an amount that alters perceptions of teaching as a profession, that shapes career aspirations of able individuals and that sends a message to the broader society that being a classroom teacher is a lucrative, prestigious and worthy activity.
Paying $200,000 to top performers would render teaching competitive with other professions, e.g., lawyering, medicine, engineering and finance. Such a large salary will cause graduates of selective colleges to rethink career choices. This can happen. Teach for America has proven that unusually able individuals will enter teaching when they believe two years as a volunteer is performing a public service. The possibility of earning $200,000 annually would likely induce many TFA alums and their like to remain in teaching.
Teaching once drew from the top rungs of the nation’s talent ladder. In earlier eras when women faced open discrimination, teaching was one of the few occupations open to able women. When civil-rights reforms dampened gender discrimination, schools became less competitive in the contest for talent. What was good for women in general, however, was not particularly good for students.
Paying effective teachers $200,000 a year can once more elevate teaching as a desired occupation and increase the flow of instructional talent into schools.
Nevada teachers, on average, are among the nation’s higher paid. However, even the top teacher salaries today come nowhere near the vastly higher levels needed to change the profession and reshape careers for America’s best and brightest.
Even so, fiscal reality must be faced. Paying all Nevada public school teachers $200,000 would cost an additional $2 billion annually. As attractive as this condition might be in some quarters, Nevada’s fragile economy cannot withstand the added taxes needed to generate such revenues.
However, another avenue exists. By statistically controlling for students’ social and economic characteristics, it is possible to identify the Nevada teachers who annually add the most value to the achievement of their students, regardless of where those students begin.
The most effective 10 percent of these educators should be designated Master Teachers. The incremental cost, above what such individuals are currently paid in annual salary and fringe benefits, would approximate $100,000. Thus, the added annual costs for 2,000 Master Teachers would total $200 million.
Notably, this is less than the Governor’s presently proposed budget proposing modest across-the-board teacher salary increases and tiny class size reductions — expenditures for which the investment returns are questionable at best.
In return for eye-popping, professionally competitive pay, Master Teachers would agree to forego attractive administrative promotions, work a 44-week year, train apprentice teachers, and work at the schools with the greatest need.
Big ideas can transform society. Just consider the Internet and the striking changes — both qualitative and quantitative — it’s producing all around the world.
Great advantages come to the intelligently bold.
Paying effective teachers $200,000 is such an idea. Its adoption would proclaim Nevada as a leader, not a laggard, in school reform.
More importantly, however, attracting added numbers of able teachers would stem the downward schooling spiral in which many of Nevada’s poorest children are today ensnared.
James W. Guthrie was Nevada’s first governor-appointed Superintendent of Public Instruction and is a senior fellow at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.