Wilkerson’s dilemma, the choice between saving the world and profiting financially, is common among top college students in the country.
And like her, most of them follow the money.
According to a study by Anthony Milanowski at the University of Wisconsin, only 4.7 percent of college juniors would consider pursuing a career in education at the current annual salary, which starts at around $30,000 in Alabama. If teaching paid more than their career of choice, though, 68 percent of the same group said they would at least mull it over.
While most of the state’s attention recently has surrounded the ability to retain or fire teachers already in the classroom, it is the career paths of bright students like Wilkerson that will decide the future of Alabama’s school system.
Studies show that the most important determinant of a student’s academic progress is not the cachet of the school, the socioeconomic status of the learner, or the size of the class.
It is the quality of the teacher in front of the classroom.
Having an excellent teacher for just one school year increases an average child’s lifetime earnings by $32,000, according to a study by Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek. For an average class of 20 students, that’s a $640,000 windfall. Yet, an average Alabama educator teaching six classes per day only makes around $25 per class.
Rewarding good work
Some countries, and some states in this country, recognize the power of an exceptional teacher. Top-performing countries like Singapore, Finland and South Korea pay their teachers generously, often more than lawyers and engineers. Accordingly, educators in those countries enjoy the prestige that comes with the fierce competition to enter the profession.
Because of the lucrative salaries and corresponding status, these countries have no problem filling their teaching slots with graduates from the top third of their class. In the United States, only 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third; 47 percent come from the bottom third.
Across-the-board salary raises only go so far, though. Performance-based bonuses not only attract new recruits into education, but they also motivate current teachers.
Currently, the only salary increases permitted by Alabama state law are for years of service or graduate-school credits, both of which correlate little with students’ academic success.
According to Cynthia Brown, an education policy expert with the Center for American Progress, a public-policy think tank, we should instead be subsidizing teachers who take on mentoring responsibilities, accept assignments in high-need subjects or districts, and, most controversially, positively affect their students’ performance.
“We have to get away from a single salary scale, with no regard for the quality of the work that [teachers] do and their success with student learning,” Brown said.
More than just better pay, Brown says that we have a hard time luring top students in education because of the lack of advancement opportunities. If teachers want to move up, their options are typically limited to getting another degree or becoming an administrator.
Brown argues that school districts should create career ladders so that ambitious teachers are offered higher salaries as they take on greater responsibilities, like becoming mentors who counsel their less-experienced colleagues.
Legacy of Brewer’s reforms
Throughout its history, Alabama has insufficiently funded public education. We lag behind most states in both teacher salaries and overall education expenditures.
For a short time, Alabama had a governor who understood the importance of teacher recruitment. Albert Brewer, who served for only 33 months following the death of Lurleen Wallace in 1968, increased education funding by $100 million, including a more than 20 percent pay increase for teachers over two years. Using the mantra “More money for education and more education for our money,” Brewer allocated his second round of salary increases to the educators that local officials deemed most deserving.
Brewer’s reforms, however, came with a political cost. In order to raise revenue, Brewer proposed levying higher rates on stock dividends and insurance premiums. His advisers warned him that tax increases the year before an election were political suicide. Brewer didn’t care.
“The issue was doing whatever it took to improve education. If it meant that I didn’t serve another day, then so be it. It was the right thing to do. I’m glad we did it,” said Brewer, now a law professor at the Cumberland School of Law.
Brewer lost to George Wallace the next year and many of his reforms were quickly overturned.
Since then, Alabama has pretty much gotten what it has paid for.
The state routinely falls in the bottom five or 10 states in student performance, depending on what metric is used. Anniston City Schools rank 105th out of the state’s 124 school systems in test scores.
Eric Mackey, the executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said that the compensatory trend has been running in the wrong direction in recent years.
“Cost-of-living prices have gone up, energy prices have gone up, but teacher pay has been completely unaffected for five years,” he lamented.
Mackey added that the recent budget’s cuts to teacher benefits represent a de facto pay cut of 2.5 percent.
“I don’t think we’ll continue to be an attractive profession unless we can compensate people.”
Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston, is currently one of the most powerful legislators in the state Senate. He says he’d like to see a two-tiered system in Alabama, wherein teachers can choose the “safer” tenure path or a merit-based trajectory.
Marsh said that the new Republican majority hopes to usher in more reforms to education like his two-tiered arrangement.
“Let’s reward those teachers who are producing or reward those who come out of school at the top of their class,” Marsh said. “But I can’t agree with just increasing pay across the board without performance or merit figured in there somewhere.”
The South Carolina model
In 2006, President Bush announced a new federal program called the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) designed to reward states and school districts for implementing performance-based teacher compensations systems. President Obama increased TIF’s funding fivefold, to nearly $500 million for fiscal 2010.
South Carolina’s Department of Education received $50 million of that money within the last year. Mississippi and Louisiana also cashed in.
The Alabama Department of Education didn’t even apply. And department representatives said they didn’t know why not.
Mark Bounds, South Carolina’s deputy superintendent for education quality and leadership, is pleased with his state’s haul. “We wanted to do everything we can to recognize great teaching,” he said.
In 1999, South Carolina implemented the Teacher Advancement Program, a national program that also runs school systems in Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana. TAP has four components: career ladders for teachers, a robust professional development system, accountability to student achievement, and performance-based compensation.
Using the TAP model, South Carolina has received two large federal grants in the last five years for the 72 TAP schools in the state. The schools are typically located in South Carolina’s most impoverished districts.
“We’ve had tremendous success,” Bounds said. “We typically see about the same amount of turnover the first year, but after that, the turnover almost goes to zero. Teachers like to be recognized and compensated for great teaching.”
Teachers in TAP are measured based on a “value-added” scale; they are rewarded for students’ relative progress and not how they compare to national averages. If a student enters fourth grade on a first-grade reading level and scores at a third-grade level after the year, his reading teacher will receive a bonus, despite the student’s still sub-par performance.
Bounds said that student performance has increased markedly under the program.
Though Alabama’s Department of Education passed on the Teacher Incentive Fund bonanza, the state did not completely strike out. Deep in the heart of the Black Belt, a few unlikely reformers decided to toss their hat in the ring.
Litta Norris was one of them. Norris is a fiery school-improvement specialist in Butler County.
She spearheaded a pilot program that created monetary incentives for teachers who had perfect attendance throughout the year or mentored their colleagues.
“We threw 40-something employees together for four days,” Norris said of the planning process. “We had principals, janitors, bus drivers, teachers. We had everyone.”
Butler County’s program, which relied on limited state funds, proved to be remarkably successful. Teacher attendance buoyed drastically, the amount of extracurricular opportunities like art clubs and science clubs skyrocketed, and students reported greater satisfaction with their teachers.
Ostensibly impressed, the Teacher Incentive Fund gave Butler County $7 million. Thanks to the funding, Norris says the county will be able to implement any even more robust program, including performance pay, starting in the fall of 2012.
“The top of the top aren’t going into teaching. And the few altruistic ones end up leaving because of the problems and the pay,” Norris said. “The whole point is to make teachers more accountable to their effectiveness and to draw better students to education.”
Lowndes County, Butler’s next-door-neighbor, also received funds from TIF for its own compensation system.
The Teacher Incentive Fund did not dispense any grants in 2011, but the website promises a return in 2012.
Alabama’s application should be the first one in.
Receiving a state, or even city, grant may not save Alabama’s public school systems. But if an extra bonus or two can convince the next Anne Miles Wilkerson to pursue her passion, then it would be a step in the right direction.