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Better Pay, Better Teachers


Published: October 12, 2020

American teachers are paid less than similarly skilled individuals in other professions. As a result, our education system isn’t performing at an acceptable level. Improving public education requires significantly enhancing teacher salaries but also tilting compensation toward the most effective teachers. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What qualities do you look for in a great teacher?
  2. How can we encourage our teachers to constantly improve?

Additional Resources

  • Read “The Unavoidable: Tomorrow’s Teacher Compensation,” by Eric Hanushek. Available here.
  • Read “The Achievement Gap Fails to Close,” by Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson. Available here
  • Read Eric Hanushek’s interview in “No Change in Student Achievement Gap in Last 50 Years.” Available here.
View Transcript

It’s no secret that students in the United States are no longer competitive with students from much of the developed world. Moreover, there are large achievement gaps across socioeconomic groups. These trends mean reduced opportunities for these students and ultimately a weaker American economy.


The special challenges of the pandemic have only heightened the need to retain and use our most effective teachers better. 


If the goal is to boost student achievement, there is no substitute for adopting policies that relentlessly focus on improving student achievement.


There is broad consensus that quality teachers and principals are the crucial ingredients to solving both the overall performance problems of schools and the inequities in outcomes that exist.


One of the reasons why our education system isn’t performing is that we do not compensate teachers in a sensible way.


My own research points to several reasons why.


First, there is no question that teachers are underpaid. The typical American teachers earns about 22 percent less than people with similar skills who chooses other jobs. 


Second, teacher salaries have been stagnant for almost two decades, when adjusted for inflation. Education spending has increased, but it has gone toward having more teachers and administrators, not to supporting individual teachers. It’s not surprising that this increased spending has not improved results.


Third, and perhaps most importantly, teacher pay is wholly unrelated to performance. Generally speaking, compensation for public school teachers is based on only two factors: Years spent teaching and advanced degrees obtained.


Studies have shown that neither of these factors is closely related to teaching quality. Teachers with master’s degrees and decades of classroom experience are no more effective than teachers with only a bachelor’s degree and a few years in the classroom. And yet the veteran teachers receive far higher compensation.


That doesn’t make sense in any other industry, and it doesn’t make sense here.


Improving public education requires significantly enhancing teacher salaries, but also tilting compensation toward the most effective teachers.


Significantly higher salaries directed at our effective teachers enhance the teaching profession, improve the future of our students, and are far more affordable than across-the-board pay increases.


Many people object to paying some teachers more than others based on performance, often questioning how one can define a good or bad teacher. Past research suggests that it is possible to reliably identify the best and worst teachers and that such identification can support superior policies.


Washington D.C. and Dallas, Texas are two cities have started to pay teachers based in part on their performance in the classroom. Results from these experiments indicate that it is worth doing.


A focus on teacher compensation does not mean that teachers are to be blamed for all of our problems with schools or for lackluster performance of American students on international tests.


Far from being villains, our more effective teachers offer the solution to bringing all students up to international levels and ultimately strengthen the American economy.