Working conditions also tend to drive away the ambitious and competent. The average annual teacher pay of $52,000 is about $5,000 less than the salary earned by the average holder of a bachelor's degree. With grading, class preparation, and meetings, teachers' workdays regularly exceed 11 hours. And a combination of strict union rules and poor management has guaranteed incompetent teachers lifetime jobs, leaving little incentive for teachers to improve to earn more money. No wonder 40 percent of teachers say they are disheartened, and 16 percent of teachers leave the profession every year.
All of this hurts the students who need the most help. Research shows that disadvantaged kids typically get the worst teachers—the least trained and the rejects from good schools.
The Obama administration wants to change that by encouraging alternative training programs such as Teach for America and improving the caliber of principals, who are responsible for selecting and training teachers. The administration also plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help districts link teacher compensation to student performance.
A glimpse of that future can be seen in the Tampa area. Teachers at Hillsborough County schools who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (a nonprofit that has set higher hurdles for teacher's licenses than most states) and agree to teach in high-poverty schools get a bonus of $4,500. District officials want to attract nationally certified teachers because research has shown that their students tend to do better on standardized tests.
Teachers who earn top performance evaluations and work at schools where students' scores on annual tests show good gains against their previous year's scores can collect additional bonuses of up to 20 percent. Hillsborough County won teacher union approval of the merit pay bonuses in part because the money is tied to how much students learned in the year they spent with a particular teacher. Unions have fought more common merit pay programs that simply award bonuses to teachers whose students score well on tests, arguing that those systems unfairly penalize good teachers who work with lower-income students, who tend to score lower on standardized tests.
The bonuses helped lure dozens of nationally certified teachers into long-troubled schools. And many of those schools are turning around. Sulphur Springs Elementary in the Hillsborough district, for example, worked its way up from an F under Florida's school grading system to a B.
But Sharon Stewart, a Sulphur Springs teacher who gets the national certification bonus, believes most of the other merit bonuses hurt teachers and students. The extra money she received was like icing on a cake—nice, but not essential. More important, she says, was the way the training and self-analysis required for national certification made her a better teacher. Very few teachers in her school earned any of the district's other merit pay bonuses, which are awarded to the small percentage of teachers highly ranked by principal evaluations and student test scores. Stewart points out that many teachers contribute to each child's education. "If you have teachers competing with each other, you take away collaboration," she worries.
In fact, studies of teachers, who often choose the profession for idealistic reasons, show that pay alone isn't enough to raise the quality of teaching. Rob Meyer, director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says approaches like the Teacher Advancement Program, in which master teachers help others improve lessons, have "shown a lot of promise" in elementary schools (though not in high schools) in Chicago and in Louisiana. The only problem: Real improvements take money. "People tend to skimp on what it takes for genuine reforms, and people massively skimp on professional development," Meyer says.