After more than a decade of focus on tests and student performance, America's quest to improve public schools is boring in on improving teacher quality.
From California to New York, cities and states are launching ambitious - and often controversial - initiatives to attract the best teachers by increasing their salaries and in some cases tying their pay to performance in the classroom.
While similar efforts have been launched in the past, the emphasis on wooing the best instructors is reaching a new intensity with the emergence of two forces: a tight US labor market that is increasing competition for top talent of all kinds, and a preoccupation with improving public schools. "We're seeing an increasing focus and recognition of the importance of quality teaching and preparation of teachers ...," says Christopher Cross of the Council for Basic Education in Washington.
A prime example of the shift under way is California, which in recent days enacted a $2.4 billion package that experts say is one of the largest and most ambitious teacher incentive packages yet adopted in the nation. California's plan may be the biggest, but it's not alone.
A number of states and cities are considering or experimenting with ways to increase teacher pay in hopes of attracting and rewarding the best and brightest. Iowa and Nebraska are two of the newest examples considering sweeping overhauls of their teacher compensation systems with emphasis on paying for performance.
Some 20 other states have already enacted some sort of bonus system that rewards teachers for meeting certain goals. And Connecticut, New York and others have been raising salaries or offering incentives like home loans and tuition reimbursements to attract teachers.
All these efforts are built on the premise that teaching needs to pay better, probably much better, to attract the more than 2 million new teachers the nation will need over the next decade.
Furthermore, education experts see a clear corollary between teacher quality and student performance. The question is how to use pay and other incentives to get and retain the best-qualified teachers.
Indeed, teacher pay was a primary and contentious issue at the conventions of the nation's two largest teacher unions last week. The National Education Association, representing about two-thirds of the nation's teachers, rebuffed a recommendation by its leadership that it embrace linking pay bonuses to job performance.
While that approach is already at work in a number of school districts around the country, the NEA opponents said bonus systems could increase inequities by drawing teachers away from schools with disadvantaged children.
The NEA was united, however, in its appeal for higher teacher salaries overall.
For most of the past 10 years, teacher salaries have been rising faster than the rate of inflation, reports a survey by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union. The average teacher salary grew 3.3 percent last year. It now stands at about $40,000.
But in releasing the teacher salary data recently, AFT president Sandra Feldman called the pay levels a "national emergency ... we have to ask ... What are our priorities as a nation?"
Many education experts agree that teacher pay is inadequate to retain and attract top-flight college graduates who can make more by becoming an accountant or an engineer. In high-priced markets like California's Silicon Valley, for instance, many new teachers find the starting salary of $34,000 inadequate when rent for a one-bedroom apartment can cost $15,000 per year. Many teachers leave the region, or the profession, within their first three years in the classroom.
Some school districts are offering housing subsidies, and others are working to build their own apartments to make the economics work better for new teachers.
With the nation's record economic boom, many education experts bemoan the meager progress on teacher salaries. Allan Odden, an expert on teacher pay at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says the US could certainly afford to raise the floor salary for all US teachers by 25 percent, which would cost about $30 billion.
But Mr. Odden says such an approach won't fly with either the public or policymakers. "What that does is just make the current system more expensive. You don't get any change. You have to link pay to instructional performance," he says.
California's plan offers an amalgam of higher pay and bonuses. The starting pay for all teachers will rise by 6 percent. Also, the state will send $1.8 billion in funds to schools. While the money is discretionary, it is repayment for cost of living increases that were canceled during the sour economy of the early 1990s. Most districts, as a result, are expected to funnel those funds into higher teacher pay.
In addition, California teachers who gain certification by the National Board of Professional Teacher Standards would qualify for a $10,000 bonus, and those who agree to teach in low-performing schools for four years could qualify for another $20,000 bonus.
And teachers in low-performing schools who produce significant gains by their students on statewide tests would qualify for bonuses up to $25,000, the largest such bonus Odden has heard of in the nation.
In short, say experts, the entire teacher-pay system is undergoing a slow but potentially revolutionary change. The existing pay system was forged earlier this century, when the priority was to bring equity to a system that had seen unequal pay for women and minorities.
But today, says Odden, the pay system is being pressured to focus on results. A whole range of merit, bonus, and incentive plans are being tried around the country. Some create a reward on the basis of how students and schools perform on tests. Others are beginning to look at introducing more pay differentials based on teacher qualifications, or paying for "knowledge and skills," says Odden.
Polls conducted by The Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning in Santa Cruz, Calif., show the public is behind the added focus on teacher quality. When asked what most influences learning in the classroom, the top vote-getter was teacher quality, well ahead of achievement tests and academic standards. Reacting to Governor Davis's reform package, Margaret Gaston of the research group says, "He really has put teacher quality on the map, and we haven't heard that before."
WHERE THE MONEY IS
The average annual salaries in 1999 for various jobs:
Teacher $ 40,574 Accountant 49,257 Buyer/contract specialist 57,392 Computer systems analyst 66,782 Engineer 68,782
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society