Raising teacher salaries: the funds are there

Jul 25, 2011 by

Martin Haberman – The operational definition of a “fully qualified” new teacher is one who will not apply to teach where s/he is most needed and who will fail or quit if s/he does. Fifty eight percent of those who have been graduated from state approved teacher education programs and who have passed the required tests for licensure never take jobs. In my state this number has reached as high as 70 percent in a given year. And this is a gross under estimate in many states. In New York State for example, the SUNY system graduates between 16,000 and 17,000 teachers a year and none apply to work in New York City. The most frequently cited misquote in American education is, “Half of the beginning teachers quit or fail in their first five years.” Wrong! If as many as half of those the colleges dub “fully qualified” actually deigned to take jobs in urban schools it would be a highly significant improvement. The number of “fully qualified” graduates who actually take teaching positions in the 120 largest urban districts serving diverse children in poverty is approximately 15 percent of the total number the colleges and universities turn out each year. This means that when half of this number quit or fail in five years or less, the colleges and universities are providing the 120 largest urban school districts with between seven and eight percent of the total annual output they prepare and pronounce “fully qualified” to teach all children. Imagine a factory producing television sets that had over 93 percent of them fall off the assembly line or not turn on when they were plugged in. Imagine further that the factory was able to keep doing this for half a century because it was supported with public funds. Might it be time to consider a new producer or should the same old factory receive hundreds of millions in federal grants annually to work harder and faster? So long as we continue to look to the colleges and universities running the same old assembly lines producing late adolescent and young adult females with little or no life or work experiences the outcome is highly predictable. “When you do what you always did, you get what you always got. ‘Brains’ are when you fail in a new way.”

Martin Haberman

The turnover of failure/quitter teachers costs the public schools $2.6 billion every year. As mind boggling as this figure is, $2.6 billion is a substantial underestimate since it does not take into account the full costs to the school districts of their teacher turnover. In addition, this figure does not include the costs to these failure/quitters themselves (and to their families) of going to college to become teachers, or the costs to the public of supporting over 700 institutions of higher education which train these “fully qualified” individuals. Since each urban school district adds to the amounts they invest in teacher education beyond the funds that go directly for recruitment, selection and hiring, it is likely that the $2.6 billion is significantly less (perhaps as little as half) of the actual amount being spent by the school districts on maintaining a revolving door for quitter/failure teachers.

Taking funds intended for the teaching and learning of children and youth and using them for the recruitment, selection and education of teachers reaches the level of a monumental misappropriation when one considers specific urban districts. For example, the New York City Schools hire approximately 8,000 interns each year and pays $12,000 in tuition to local colleges for each of them to complete masters degrees in education. This $96 million dollars annually is not only a windfall to local universities but a misappropriation of tax-payer funds which were intended for the education of children and youth. I have recently visited NYC classrooms in which children have no writing paper let alone online computers. Paying for interns’ masters degrees does not produce more effective teachers whose children learn more, nor any assurance that those completing these free masters degrees will remain as teachers in the district or in teaching. Indeed, the evidence is to the contrary. Teachers who complete masters degrees are more likely to leave classroom teaching. In my own small city the public schools pay for twelve credits of free university tuition for any individual in a training program to become an exceptional education teacher. This discussion therefore assumes that failure/quitter teachers cost the school districts “only” $2.6 billion annually but recognizes that there are compelling reasons for believing the total costs are substantially higher.

The mantra of the 120 failing urban school districts currently miseducating seven million diverse children in urban poverty is that before they can be held accountable for raising achievement and cutting drop out rates they need three things: more money, more money and more money. They brush aside the contention that their school systems already have substantially more funds to appropriate to classrooms and children with the challenge, “If you think we have more funds we can spend on teaching and learning show us where the money is.” Now that we know that at least $2.6 is spent on recruiting quitter/failure teachers we need no longer argue about whether the central offices are bloated, or how these failing systems can justify employing more people to work at jobs outside of classrooms than actual teachers inside of classrooms. We now have the irrefutable facts–albeit underestimated. In my own small city there are 6,000 classroom teachers but 12,500 employees (that the system admits to) not counting bus drivers. Substantial funds are already in these failing systems and being misappropriated.

Each of the fifty state governments has the constitutional responsibility and ultimate accountability for the local school districts in their states. None of the states gives any of its local school districts the authority to use state funds, collected from taxpayers for the compulsory education of children and youth, the authority to redirect these funds to the recruitment of teachers or to reimbursing teachers to pursue university coursework and degrees. Each of the states has a separate system of publicly funded higher education, a substantial portion of which is specifically supported for the express purpose of educating teachers. It has always been assumed that recruiting and hiring teachers is such a miniscule portion of a school district’s budget that the concept of “misappropriation” simply wouldn’t apply to a problem such as teacher turnover. This assumption is still valid in small towns and suburbs. It has not been correct in the 120 major urban school districts for more than twenty five years. When the chum of quitter/failure teachers coming and going from these dysfunctional districts reaches the level of $2.6 billion annually it becomes reasonable and necessary to question the siphoning off of substantial funds that should be going to the education of diverse children and youth in poverty. This is a taxpayer’s suit waiting to happen. What is the cause of this problem? What is the solution?

In many states, including my own, the majority of those whom the schools and colleges of education and their respective state education departments license and pronounce “fully qualified” never take teaching jobs. The primary reason for this is that the jobs are in the 120 largest urban districts serving diverse children in urban poverty and most of these graduates are more honest about their inadequacies than the people who certify and license them. The graduates know they do not want to, or can’t, teach diverse children in poverty. The children, the parents and the public should heartily thank all these “teachers” who never teach for moving on to graduate school to train for other careers or for taking jobs outside of education. Unfortunately, there is a substantial number of others who are afraid of African American children, or who don’t want to work with bilingual children, or with diverse children in poverty but who deign to accept positions teaching them. They may be individuals who have little understanding of their own lack of skills, or who are ignorant of the challenges presented by working in dysfunctional bureaucracies. Or they may be individuals simply desperate for a job with health insurance and a retirement package. These subgroups comprise the “fully qualified” who waste their own and the children’s precious school time failing, quitting and running up the annual tab of $2.6 billion.

The argument of those in schools and colleges of education, their lobbyists and their apologists is even more appalling and less justified than the cry of the school districts for more funds. The colleges and universities not only seek additional funds for preparing even larger numbers of failure/quitters but argue that the conditions of work in these failing school districts are so horrendous that they can’t be held accountable for preparing teachers to stay in them until the schools are first transformed into decent places for teachers to work. In a very real sense this excuse is valid. The conditions of work in the 120 failing urban districts are horrendous and do prevent many committed, well prepared teachers from being effective. It is also true that this excuse is a self-serving, disingenuous attempt to avoid being held accountable for the quitter/failure graduates they declare to be “fully qualified”. Every one of these 120 failing school districts has star teachers and even a few successful schools right now functioning under the very same horrendous, anti-learning conditions fostered by their dysfunctional bureaucracies. Approximately eight percent of urban teachers are stars whose children are learning in spite of all the debilitating conditions of work. This means that in a city like Chicago with 25,000 teachers there are over 2,000 teachers whose students are learning in spite of the debilitating conditions of work. Stars are teachers whose students achieve regardless of the quality of the principal, the alignment of the curriculum with the tests, the school climate, the involvement of the parents, class size or any of the factors typically used to explain school success. The question is how do the 120 failing school districts recruit and select more potentially star teachers and stop the churn of failure/quitters damaging diverse children and youth in poverty who need effective teachers.

The first cause of this problem is the completely impersonal hiring procedures used by many school districts to hire beginning teachers. Urban school districts have extensive written and paper requirements involving the completion of application forms, the transmission of transcripts and licenses, criminal checks, and the passing of physical exams, state tests and computerized interviews. In many of these districts applicants complete all of these requirements without ever meeting anyone face-to-face who will be held accountable for hiring them. Except for the position of teacher in a failing urban school system, I have never been able to identify another job in American society that an individual can be hired for without having some kind of interview with another human being. People hired to wash cars or to clean toilets cannot get those jobs without having to speak to a person face-to-face who is then held responsible for having hired them. Using the rationalization that they do not have the time or the resources to personally interview every teacher applicant, the hiring officials of many urban school districts continue to hire large numbers of beginning teachers using automated telephone interviews or written questionnaires. Districts using these impersonal screening systems never interview or see the teachers they have hired until after they have been sent letters offering them positions. The hiring officials who are overwhelmed with the never-ending work of hiring new teachers never stop to ask themselves the obvious question: “If our expensive, depersonalized system of compiling thick dossiers of paperwork on each applicant was getting our district effective teachers who stayed, why would we have to expend so much time, effort and money hiring so many new teachers again every year?” When district officials are confronted directly with the fact that their hiring procedures are systematically identifying and recruiting quitter/failures rather than effective teachers they respond with, “You can’t hold us responsible for teachers’ terrible working conditions; that’s up to the school principals.” Until and unless the school districts, 1) utilize a hiring process that includes personal interviews with predictive validity and 2) hold specific district employees accountable for hiring specific candidates to teach in those districts, the current practice of recruiting, processing and hiring quitter/failures in the 120 dysfunctional bureaucracies will continue. Where there is no accountability there is neither high quality nor improvement.

The second cause for the continuous teacher turnover is the failed system of traditional teacher preparation. If traditional teacher education were working rather than grinding out failure/quitters and those who never take jobs there would be no need to hire 2.2 million teachers between 2000 and 2010. The solution is to hold those who claim to be preparing and licensing “fully qualified” teachers accountable for their graduates. An accountable system of preparing teachers would hold schools of education responsible for whether their graduates took jobs where they are needed, how long they stayed and how well the students of their graduates achieved. The impact of Leave No Child Behind remains to be seen.

The solution is not complex and the process for reaching that solution already exists in the systems the various state governments use for licensing teachers, for approving their teacher education programs and for funding higher education. No existing state departments, organizational structure or funding levels have to be transformed or even changed to solve this problem. The only obstacle is the historical unwillingness to hold traditional university based programs of teacher education accountable for their graduates. A system of accountability for traditional teacher education could readily be administered by the state education departments which currently oversee preparation programs. The states currently mandate criteria which schools of education must meet in order to remain accredited and receive public funds. States could require that in order to continue receiving state funding schools and colleges of education must keep records of whether their graduates take teaching positions, in which school districts and how effective they are. A few states have tried to do this but none has reached the level of actually making their teacher preparing institutions truly accountable. The way to “motivate” the colleges and universities to collect the necessary follow-up data on their “fully qualified” graduates is make their graduates’ effectiveness as teachers the basis of their funding. Presently, states fund public universities using input criteria, i.e. how many student credit hours they offer to how many students. The more students there are taking more courses the more funding schools of education generate from their states. This system has proven to be a powerful source of motivation for schools of education to produce as many graduates taking as many education courses as they can without ever being held accountable for whether the graduates teach or whether they could teach if they actually tried. In effect, these are rewards for producing as many quitter/failures as possible. In this current system of non- accountability the schools of education are in no way connected to the miseducation of diverse children in poverty in failing school districts. The schools of education consider their clients the preservice students buying credits in education courses not the children in the schools. “Evaluating” the current system therefore has nothing whatever to do with whether the “fully qualified” graduates can teach anyone anything and involves only the counting of credits hours students have completed in the schools of education. This system of funding inputs (i.e. coursework) rather than any outcomes makes the teacher preparing institution’s primary goal increasing the number of education courses that are required for an increasing number of students. The Texas legislature tried to halt this system by passing a law limiting state support to colleges and universities to eighteen credits in education courses. This meant that institutions could not be reimbursed by the state for requiring more and more education courses. This was a small first step but it did not change the nature of the students who were admitted to teacher education programs nor make the teacher preparing institutions accountable for the performance of their graduates. Tinkering with the input criteria into traditional teacher educations programs does not change or improve them. Only focusing on output criteria and instituting a system of accountability would change who the schools of education admit and the nature of the training offered.

To accomplish such an accountability system the basis for a state’s support formula to a school of education should begin with the number of “fully qualified” graduates it turns out in a given year. The number who do not take teaching jobs would then be subtracted from this base number. The number who take positions but then quit or fail in the first three years would also be subtracted from this base number. Finally, the success of the graduates in effecting students’ learning would be factored in from data gathered from the districts employing them. What this would mean in practice is that the budget cycle of a particular teacher preparing institution would reflect a three year lag so that the funding formula could take into account how many graduates took jobs, how long they stayed and their students’ achievement. At the end of five years a bonus would be added to the support level of the base year for teachers still in classrooms whose children were achieving at satisfactory levels.

Using $2.6 billion for children rather than for hiring failure/quitter teachers would mean that approximately $375 more could be spent on each of the 7 million diverse children in poverty every year. This means that every school serving diverse children in poverty could have approximately $9,275 more for every class of twenty five students. If the classrooms were in a small school of thirty classrooms that school would have over $278,000 more annually to spend than it does now. If the classrooms were in a larger school of one hundred classrooms that school would have $927,000 more annually to work with every year. These are substantial amounts that could be used for raising teacher salaries. In my small city the teachers in the fifty schools designated as Schools in Need of Improvement could be eligible for a salary increase as their schools made gains. They could also allow a school to hire teacher aides, or offer tutoring programs, or buy more computers, or rehire an art and music teacher, or take more field trips, or update textbooks, or start a summer school, or take students camping, or buy more science equipment, or start an after school program, or give teachers bonuses for particular achievements, or if the school were in NYC the children might get some paper to write on.

Another alternative would be to begin by applying the $2.6 billion to raising teacher salaries in the 2,000 failing high schools which we have known about for years but do nothing about. Half of America’s African American students and forty percent of Latino students attend drop out factories where a majority of the students never graduate. In the United States those with handicapping conditions are more likely to graduate from high school (two-thirds) than those in poverty or students of color (half). Half of the dropout factories are in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New York. The other half are in the South and Southwest. Each of these 2,000 high schools could get $1.3 million more every year if all the districts stopped hiring the “fully qualified” teachers currently being graduated by unaccountable schools of education. In my own small city the teachers in all but one of our eighteen high schools could be eligible for a raise as their school achievement and graduation rates improved.

Spending $2.6 billion annually on quitter/failure teachers is actually worse than simply shoveling the money into Lake Michigan. Just dumping the money would have no negative effects on children from having to endure quitter/failure teachers who turn them off to learning and to school. A billion here a billion there, pretty soon we’re talking about real money.

The Nature of Effective Urban Teaching

Everyday 3000 students drop out of high school. Every one of these individuals represents a personal tragedy. They will have a lifelong struggle to get a job with health benefits, live in a safe neighborhood, or be able to send their children to a school that is any better than the one they dropped out of. American society creates a city the size of Chicago every two and one-half years filled with drop outs and no-hopers. In 2004 there were 5.5 million individuals between ages 16 and 24 who were neither in school or employed. The question is how long can a society continue to miseducate its youth on this epic scale and still survive?

Effective urban teachers are aware of these conditions and perceive of themselves as engaged in a life and death occupation. They understand that while their students are unaware and not oozing gratitude for their services, they are engaged in saving lives everyday. The depth and magnitude of their services is unimaginable to the public at large. They are experts in the nature of teaching and learning, the nature of human development, the subject matter they teach and in their ability to organize and manage classroom environments that are conducive to learning. They teach effectively in schools that may be failing and are embedded in dysfunctional school districts. They prepare decent people and citizens interested in learning and not just job holders. They do all of this in spite of the fact that they were trained by university faculty who could not survive at these schools for a week. Many of them teach classes of 35 to 40 students with insufficient materials, no on-line computers, no teaching assistants and more than 20 percent of their students labeled with some handicapping condition.

The problem with this analysis is that it explains the urban teacher’s work as equivalent to others who perform life-saving work deemed vital by the society, e.g. air traffic controllers. The public does not believe that teaching diverse children in poverty as a matter of life and death. The public perceives of teaching as something that any college graduate can do and if the conditions of work in urban schools are hard then it is the fault of the students themselves, their families and their communities. By blaming the victims and their families the public is able to retain the stereotype of who a beginning teacher is even if most of them don’t take jobs, quit, or fail. It is the fault of ‘those’ people who have only themselves to blame for the conditions of their lives and their schools.

According to the Phi Delta Kappan Annual Survey of 2004, the prognosis for raising teacher salaries is not good. The 2004 survey indicates that 59 percent of the public believes teachers salaries are too low. At the same time 58 percent of the respondents believe that it is possible to get better teachers and close the achievement gap without spending more money. How is it possible to believe both of these things at once? Why have we come to hold strong, rigid beliefs regarding teacher salaries which are both contradictory and unsupported by experience or data?

The Cultural Basis of Teacher Salaries

For the first three hundred years of our history Americans acted as if they believed James Madison’s charge, “Education is the true foundation of civil liberty.” When the Puritans landed in 1648 the first thing they did was establish a common school and a commons for grazing sheep. Schooling was considered the community’s primary responsibility. This commitment reached its zenith between 1890 and 1920 when thirty million European immigrants came to a country with a total population of less than thirty million. There was general agreement that it was everyone’s responsibility to support a system of public education that would “make Americans”. Part of being a responsible citizen was the commitment to help provide all children–including other people’s children–with a sound education. The commonly held belief was that everyone in the society would benefit from having a more highly educated citizenry. Part of this commitment was fueled by a xenophobic perception that the country would be destroyed unless ignorant foreigners could be socialized by American values but the commitment to pay for the schooling of other people’s children was clearly part of the social contract. At the same time, it was not expected that everyone would graduate from high school. In 1900 less than ten percent of the population were high school graduates. Teenagers were encouraged to quit school to help support themselves and their families and were not regarded as dropouts for not finishing high school. Schools were also cheaper to operate because they were limited in their offerings and access for children of color and students with handicapping conditions were simply ignored. Today, graduation from high school is considered a universal right. Everyone is expected to graduate and schools offer a much more elaborate, expensive curriculum. But eighty percent of American households do not have children in public schools or in any school at all. Most Americans now perceive of schooling as a personal good that leads to higher paying jobs and act on this value: “If you want more schooling that gets you a higher paying job then you should pay for it.” We now have the anomaly of schooling being universally required through high school but perceived of as a personal good. Hence, the public perception that it is not responsible for providing high quality schools to educate other people’s children.

State legislatures have always acted on the basis of the state versus its urban areas. The majority of state legislators represent the interests of rural, small town and suburban districts. Whether the issue is health care, transportation, social services, gambling, the environment, schools, or the criminal justice system, most legislators perceive of their urban areas as causing the problems that suck up a disproportionate amount of state resources. State legislatures act on the belief that the cities generate all the problems that the rest of the state must pay for them. If one analyzes legislation state by state, it becomes clear that it is typically the State of Illinois vs. the City of Chicago, the State of Indiana vs. the City of Indianapolis, the State of New York vs. the City of New York, the State of Wisconsin vs. the City of Milwaukee. Legislators become inured to urban problems and ignore the special needs of urban schools serving a disproportionate number of children in need of special services, children in poverty and children fighting discrimination. Nationally, seven million children live in urban poverty and require additional resources. For example, Milwaukee serves more students with special needs than the entire state of Wisconsin. Yet, in every one of the fifty states the legislature has established a system for financing public education which serves small towns and suburbs adequately but which does not support the special needs of urban schools “at the expense of the rest of the state”.

While every one of the 120 major urban school districts serving diverse children in poverty is a failing bureaucracy, each of these districts have individual schools that are successful. In no city however has any urban school district been able to scale up its few successful schools to the point of transforming the entire district. The districts are dysfunctional organizations which siphon funds away from schools, teachers and students. In some of these districts there are two employees for each teacher: in others, the ratio is now three non-teaching employees for each teacher. In my own City of Milwaukee, the district started the 2004 school year with $12,260 behind each student. The monies actually transferred to individual schools to actually educate the children, however, amounted to $5,000 per child, less in some elementary schools and more in some high schools. This means that the school district spends more than 58 cents out of every dollar on people and functions not directly related to the teaching of children and youth. State legislators, not disposed to give urban school districts anything in the first place, are asked to give $1.00 to their dysfunctional urban school districts in order to have 42 cents pass through the central offices and actually reach schools, teachers and children. In addition, cities provide endless services that small towns and suburbs would never dream of providing. For example, the City of New York recently announced that it had hired a new director for its translation department, a bureau that translates school notices to parents into foreign languages. His salary is $120,000 per year plus more than 50% fringe benefits. This individual left the Los Angeles Public Schools where he headed a translating division that cost the district $6.2 million dollars per year. These are trivial examples but indicative of systems in which there is a substantial and growing supply of individuals earning over $100,000 annually who are not teachers providing services that are directly related to teaching and learning.

Historically and culturally, teaching is perceived of as women’s work. Even more, it is the work of young, single women with no other career options, who are expected to be temporary help and who can be readily replaced. Further, this perception is of young women with only a very limited set of readily learned, superficial skills and no substantial, technical, math or science knowledge.

A teaching career in the United States is now down to eleven years. This includes all schools not just those in the major urban areas. This coming and going of teachers in the 120 major urban districts results in a more than fifty percent chance that children of color will have more than one teacher a year whether in third grade or as a middle school math teacher. In my own city of only 6,000 teachers, 1,200 left between February 2003 and October 2004 and this is less than in preceding years. Our best evidence is that it takes six or seven years for a teacher to develop the advanced skills of a teaching professional. This means that for the half who don’t quit they will have an average of five years when they will be performing at their maximum levels before leaving or experiencing burnout.

The historical development of teacher training was clear and purposeful from the very beginning. It was intended to cut the salaries of itinerant males who went from town to town and kept school for a few months by using local females who cost substantially less. The avowed purpose was to find safe, clean work for young, semiliterate farm girls within fifty miles of home. Teacher training institutions were built throughout the states in rural areas to make training for the local girls accessible and affordable. In addition to the fact that she didn’t know much, was not expected to know much, and would work very cheaply, there was a natural confluence between finding something for young girls to do in life and keeping the costs of schooling down. Today, 75 percent of teachers are still female and 80 percent of all teachers still work within fifty miles of where they grew up and attended school. My local school superintendent recently pointed out to me that our school district should not be held accountable for the constant chum of teachers coming and going. “After all, it is natural for young women in their twenties to start families and it is to be expected that young people today will change jobs many times.” In contrast to this stereotype there is substantial and growing evidence that a beginning teacher who stays and succeeds in urban schools is more likely to be a mature individual, a family provider and someone between thirty and fifty years of age who has tried other careers and who knows a great deal about some particular subject matter. So long as a “teacher” is stereotyped as a young woman with no other marketable skills, who is passing through the school district on the way to raising a family or another job, there will be no change in the widespread perception that current salaries for “keeping school” for ten months is an adequately paid job. While salaries over a lifetime increase by ten percent for every year of schooling, women’s salaries remain 25 percent less than those of men. Even nurses, with high levels of technical and scientific knowledge and who are in great demand have salaries that reflect an undervaluing of what they know and do for people. The public feels no need to raise salaries for jobs perceived of as “women’s work”.

Salaries of Urban School Superintendents, School Secretaries and School Engineers

I never met a superintendent whose services to the district was worth that of seven teachers. While the overwhelming majority of the 15,300 school districts in the country are underfunded, the public has developed the misperception that school superintendents are somehow comparable to chief operating officers of private corporations. School administrators have used this scam to artificially inflate their salaries. For urban school superintendents located as they are in underfunded districts serving children in poverty, their salaries are unconscionable. Using the total budget and number of employees in the district as the basis for setting their salaries, they have claimed their work is comparable to CEOs in the private sector who oversee the same number of people and the same size budget. As a result of this apples and oranges comparison major cities in America now have school superintendents earning $200,000 or more, plus benefit packages of between 50% and 60%, plus bonuses related to raising achievement or decreasing dropouts. I know of several superintendents who earn two salaries: one from the district that has bought out their contract to be rid of them and a second from a new district that has hired them. It has even become common for directors of publicly funded community agencies serving the poor to be paid such inflated salaries. It is unethical for public administrators to enrich themselves on the backs of the poor and especially disingenuous because public monies are used to do it. We have allowed the bizarre idea to flourish that there is a competitive market for school superintendents when in fact none exists. They are not chosen in an open competitive market but from an artificially contrived, limited pool that generates failures at a predictable, statistically significant level, if administering larger budgets and more people were a valid basis for determining a public administrator’s salary how do we explain the fact that urban school superintendents typically earn substantially more than mayors in the very same cities who administer larger budgets and employ more people? The answer is that mayors are selected by an open competitive process while school superintendents are selected in a contrived, controlled, limited one.

Every one of the 120 urban school districts serving seven million diverse children in poverty is a failing district. The average length of service of urban superintendents leading these dysfunctional bureaucracies has reached new lows and is now down to two and one-half years. The most widely used criterion for hiring a superintendent is that s/he was a superintendent somewhere else. Since the 120 largest districts have been deteriorating for fifty years we can now point to a pool of recycled failures that is now quite substantial. Without a single example of a superintendent who has closed the achievement gap; or cut and maintained decreases in dropouts, suspensions and school violence; or even slowed the churn of teachers quitting and failing out of their districts, it must be recognized that the system of selecting school superintendents is somewhat less than a successful enterprise. Since it is not possible to do worse than zero, there is every reason to believe that more effective school superintendents could be identified who would do as well or better than the current ones–and for substantially lower salaries–if the selection process were opened to new and different pools of applicants. Unfortunately, given the widespread acceptance of the irrational view that the public administrator of a non-profit organization serving the poor is comparable to a CEO in the private sector, it is likely that the practice of continuing to increase the inflated salaries of incompetent superintendents will continue even as these districts deal with budgetary constraints and deteriorating educational outcomes.

It must be recognized that failing districts with annual budgets which range from several hundred million up to a billion (and higher in places like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit, Houston etc.) will not be transformed into successful systems by saving the salary of an incompetent, temporary superintendent. Then why pay attention to the superintendent’s salary at all? The importance of paying superintendents substantially less lies in the messages it conveys. Paying urban superintendents less, or even doing away with the position of superintendent entirely (as several cities have done), would be a moral, symbolic victory. It would, have an impact on the morale of the thousands of teachers who give their working lives to the children and youth in these dysfunctional bureaucracies at depressed salaries. It would also send a tremor of realism throughout the schools if the community challenged the current assumptions about the supposed power, usefulness or even necessity for a superintendent. The current CEO model supports the pretense that school superintendents possess a body of knowledge and skills about how to improve a mammoth, cumbersome organization that others do not have. It implies that they know how to get the organization to produce better teaching and greater learning in spite of the evidence that none of them ever has. It supports the myth that if the superintendent’s pool is limited to individuals who have moved up the ladder(i.e. assistant principal, principal, central office functionary) they will have the experience and ability to make decisions that will affect teaching and learning in the classrooms, when in fact this is not the case. The current model maintains the fiction that the superintendent will be held accountable and even removed if annual district goals are not met. Keeping the CEO superintendent model shifts prestige, status and decision-making away from the classroom teachers who, more than anyone else in the system, exert the greatest impact on students. Based on the miseducation of seven million diverse students in poverty in 120 cities over half a century, these assumptions about the usefulness and need for superintendents are simply not supported by the data. Worst of all, the CEO school superintendent model creates and supports a culture in which teachers will never be recognized as the heart of the matter. The operating norm is these systems is that the further one is removed from children and youth the higher one’s status and salary should be.

Unfortunately, most urban boards will continue to respond to budgetary constraints by cutting teachers and letting class size grow and still not face the reality that the CEO school superintendent is a cause not a solution to the crisis. In some perverse way school board members feel their own status is enhanced when they overpay their superintendents, even when they know they are not succeeding. There is a tacit feeling of satisfaction that says, “If I can boss around someone earning $200,000 a year rather than $75,000 a year then I must be ‘somebody’ too!”

In my city the last contractually agreed-upon salary for a beginning teacher was $28,900. For those with a bachelor’s degree this column increases to $45,295 in thirteen steps. Six years ago the average teacher in my city spent over $600 per year of his/her own money on supplies, field trips and other things not provided by the system. Now, six years later, this amount exceeds $700 per year. This is 2.5 percent of the beginning teacher’s annual salary. If s/he is a single parent with three dependents then this teacher falls below the poverty line in Wisconsin and is entitled to child care and other welfare benefits.

In this same system a boiler trainee starts at $27,387 and may advance to $41,713 in the minimum column and to $52,943 in the maximum column. School clerks and secretaries are predominantly women and earn less. The 2003-2004 schedule enables them to work up to maximums of $35,611 annually. What this means is that there is a substantial number of school office workers and an even greater number of school engineers who earn more than many of the teachers. What does this tell us about the value society places on the work of a teacher? These comparisons are especially revealing when one understands that the people who work as school engineers and clerical staff in the public schools are not over-paid. They also perform invaluable services with little recognition for very modest salaries. The schools would not be able to function without them. Schools that start up with the idea that money can be saved by economizing on the salaries of clerks, engineers or teachers are engaged in pernicious behavior. But if one third (or possibly more) of the teachers in a system are earning less than senior clerks or engineers, the level at which the public values their services comes through loud and clear.


These points taken together compose a picture of a society which feels no obligation to educate other people’s children. Schooling in urban areas is not to create citizens or lifelong learners but to prepare those perceived as less than adequate (or dangerous) to “get a job and stay out of jail”. Since getting a job is a personal rather than a common good then the families with children in school should be responsible for supporting the schools. State elected officials not predisposed to support anything “urban” now have data showing that schools have more employees outside of classrooms than teachers. These dysfunctional systems will only pass 42 cents on the dollar(or less) of the state funds allocated to them through to the schools, teachers and children. The bureaucracy will keep 58 cents of each dollar(or more) for non-teaching personnel and services. This skimming supports state legislators’ natural proclivities to underfund urban schools. Demands for more equitable teacher salaries compete against the established school practice of paying non-teaching personnel more than teachers and the stereotype that teaching is temporary work for single women who can’t get better jobs. Therefore, for the first ten years of employment, paying teachers salaries which are comparable to those of a highly experienced school secretary and less than an experienced school custodian is appropriate. Since colleges and universities can supply an endless number of beginning teachers there is really no problem here. Especially when one believes that the achievement gap is really the fault of the victims.


Against this background I would suggest that organizations and community groups who believe in public education and understand that improving schools requires teachers earning more reasonable salaries, consider the following courses of action.

1. Never advocate or lobby for simply more state funds to urban school districts. The district’s goal is to enhance the funds for the system. It is only a pretense that raising teacher salaries is their highest priority. Simply asking for more state aid will not convince state legislators that new funds will get through the system to the schools and teachers any more than it has in previous budgets.

2. Build a support network among state legislators of both parties for the purpose of helping them understand the means by which dysfunctional urban school bureaucracies enhance themselves at the expense of teachers and children. Publish and distribute lists of the salaries of all school system functionaries who are not funded in individual schools.

3. Publish and distribute lists of how much each school actually receives from its central office to operate.

4. Support every effort to consider and even try out other forms of district leadership than the CEO school superintendent model, including a mayoral deputy for schools.

5. Work with the local mayor to understand that his primary goal is to enhance individual schools and their neighborhoods, not the system, and that the surest way to improve individual schools and neighborhoods is through recognizing the contributions of the teachers.

6. Work with the governor and chief state school officer to consider new options for overseeing the budgets of the major urban districts.

7. If legislative caps cannot be removed on teacher salaries then work to have caps extended to all of the school system’s employees, from the superintendent to the teacher aides. This will build enormous pressure and raise the issue of economic justice.

8. Establish common ground between the association that represents principals and the teachers union in a common effort to educate the public regarding the underfunding of individual schools.

9. Draw up sample legislation so that teacher salaries would be administered in a separate account outside of the school system’s budget thus assuring legislators that raises would go to teachers rather than the system. Lobby for such legislation.

10. In my own city in the 1960’s the state legislature removed the school superintendent’s authority over the school budget and vested it in a chief school budget officer. Alternatives establishing who such a budget officer might report to (mayor, an appointed board, state school superintendent, etc.) should all be considered.

11. Analyze and make public the costs of the teacher churn in the district.

12. Analyze and make public the precise procedures by which teachers are hired in the district and the specific functionaries accountable for each hiring decision.

13. Work to establish a system of accountability so that it will be clear which universities have prepared the teachers. Connect teachers retention and effectiveness to their preparing institutions.

The public believes schooling is a personal rather than a common good. Combined with their stereotypes of who a teacher is and what s/he does, it will be a victory to just slow the rate at which teacher salaries fall even further behind other school and public service employees. Raising teacher salaries will be dependent on securing the funds internally from dysfunctional urban school bureaucracies and not on getting massive infusions of new state or local tax dollars.


Alliance for Education, 2004 “Tapping the Potential: Retaining and Developing High Quality New Teachers” 1101 Vermont Ave. N.W. Washington, D.C.

Belfanz, R. and Legters, N., 2004 “Locating the Dropout Crisis” Johns Hopkins University. Baltimore, MD.

Distinguished Professor
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

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