Would Higher Teacher Salaries Improve Teacher Quality?

Published June 1, 2002

Teacher union officials, and those steeped in the tradition of schools of education, assert that blanket increases in teacher salaries are one way to achieve an improved education system. They contend higher teacher salaries across-the-board would compensate for the increased responsibilities shouldered by teachers; bestow the proper respect on the teaching profession; and attract well-prepared candidates to the field. They maintain teacher salaries have not been competitive within the job market and, therefore, the profession has not attracted the “best and brightest.”

Others have challenged that view, questioning the wisdom of providing a blanket increase in compensation without a way to determine returns. If competitive teacher salaries are important, they argue, then an accountable and competitive environment should be part of the package: Market principles must be applied. Concerned about attracting better-qualified teachers and justifying salary increases in the face of falling test scores, some proposals have gone beyond across-the-board pay increases.

Focus on Outputs, Not Inputs

“Teacher compensation systems should be redirected from an input-driven system to an outcome-based system,” according to a Texas Public Policy Foundation study authored by John C. Bowman, now president of Children First Tennessee. Bowman and others recommend teacher compensation systems be modified in the following ways:

  • Superior teachers should earn more than average teachers;
  • Poorly performing teachers should be expeditiously removed from the school system;
  • Across-the-board pay hikes should be resisted and/or discontinued;
  • Teachers performing more difficult tasks should receive higher pay.

If the primary goal is to increase the supply of teachers—a serious concern in some districts—blanket increases in teacher salaries might be one solution. Bowman concludes, however, that when salaries go up schools run the risk of paying more for the teachers they already have, or simply increasing the supply of teachers without increasing their quality.

“[A]ttempts to recruit better teachers by using across-the-board raises for all teachers, irrespective of merit, makes no discernible impact on new teacher recruitment,” Bowman wrote in his report on teacher compensation.

The Upjohn Institute came to a similar conclusion after conducting several years of detailed empirical analyses of teachers in both the public and the private sector. The “dramatic increases in teacher salaries over the past twenty years have done nothing to improve the quality of American public school teachers,” the institute reported.

Linking Pay to Performance

Unlike the general labor force, where output is a key salary determinant, the field of education rewards experience and advanced degrees. What if teacher pay scales were linked to performance criteria and improved productivity, rather than to the level of pre-service training?

Dr. Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute, believes that if this were done, more of the best and the brightest might be attracted to teaching, thus enhancing teacher quality and presumably improving student achievement.

“When salaries go up, schools simply pay more for the teachers they already have, rather than increase the quality of new hires …” Lieberman says. “Unless teacher salaries are raised for outstanding teachers, or teachers whose talent is paid more in the private sector, it will be impossible to recruit the kind of teachers who can elevate the entire profession.”

Hanna Skandera is a public affairs fellow at The Hoover Institution. Her email address is [email protected]. Richard Sousa is an associate director at The Hoover Institution. His email address is [email protected]. Copyright 2002 Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa. Reprint requests should be directed to the copyright holders.