Higher Salaries Won’t Improve Teacher Performance

Better pay is just as attractive to bad teachers as it is to great teachers
By Marcus Winters
Fellow at the Manhattan Institute
November 9, 2011

Do teachers deserve higher salaries? It depends on what you mean by “deserve.” From a policymaker’s perspective, teachers are underpaid if raising their salaries would increase teacher quality enough to “pay off” in the form of higher student achievement. Under the current system, however, that’s almost certainly not the case.

Improving teacher salaries could only improve teacher quality by enticing better candidates to enter the profession, by helping retain high-quality teachers, or by motivating teachers to improve their efforts in the classroom. Increasing teacher salaries within the current system would address none of these issues.

Right now, whether a teacher works long hours or how much her students learn has no influence on how much she is paid. Instead, teacher pay is based entirely on years of experience and number of advanced degrees. Unfortunately, research consistently finds that those attributes are unrelated to a teacher’s effectiveness. Simply increasing the amount of money that a teacher is paid for earning a master’s degree or sticking around another year will not motivate her to improve her effectiveness in the classroom. True, higher salaries should lead more people to enter the profession—but an increase in teacher candidates shouldn’t be expected to improve teacher quality, either. That’s because research consistently shows that just about nothing we can observe about a teacher before he enters the classroom accurately predicts how effective he’ll be. Some people have what it takes to be a great teacher, and some don’t–and we have no way to tell before they start teaching. Increasing the pool of people who want to become teachers won’t improve teacher quality unless school systems can accurately identify the best and worst candidates. They can’t.

Finally, higher teacher salaries should be expected to increase teacher retention—but higher salaries are just as attractive to bad teachers as they are to great teachers. Increasing teacher salaries across the board without consideration of how effective a teacher is in the classroom, then, won’t improve teacher quality.

Simply increasing teacher salaries without addressing the system by which those salaries are distributed will solve nothing. However, if we finally address the archaic and counterproductive compensation system for public school teachers—so that it pays effective teachers more than it pays ineffective ones—then improving teacher salaries might finally make sense.