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Teacher salaries should reflect needs of schools

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on October 9, 2013)

Last week Governor Bill Haslam indicated his desire that Tennessee teacher salaries should grow at the fastest rate in the nation.

Governor Haslam pointed to several consecutive years of gains on TCAP scores, with more students performing at grade-level in math and science, as justification for rewarding teachers. He also acknowledged higher expectations for teacher performance in light of the state’s ambitions for continuing to improve student achievement.

Haslam did not offer specifics about how he plans to support increases in teacher salaries, which are also determined by the state legislature as well as individual districts. In recent months, the governor and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman have drawn fire for planned revisions to the state’s pay scales based on years of experience or attainment of higher degrees.

While the state has invested in teacher salaries recently, average teacher salaries in Tennessee remain in the bottom 20 percent nationally.

Coincidentally, my Peabody colleague Professor Mimi Engel has recently released research findings that shed light on the challenges of recruiting new teachers, especially to urban districts and underachieving schools. Mimi’s research underlines just how difficult it can be for districts to hire effective teachers for the schools that need them most. Studying applicants to the Chicago Public Schools, Mimi learned that prospective teachers were reluctant to apply to schools in higher-poverty areas.

Instead, teachers were more likely to apply to schools in or close to their own neighborhoods. Sought-after teachers with degrees in math or science preferred to apply to teach in schools with higher achievement. Applicants also wanted to teach in schools with students who shared their characteristics — reinforcing longstanding patterns of segregation.

Mimi’s research makes it clear that it is not sufficient to think of teacher salaries at state-wide or district-wide levels. Rather, hiring officials must think in terms of meeting the needs of individual schools. Commenting on her findings, she said, “We should begin to consider what we can do to attract talented teachers to the most disadvantaged schools within districts. There is a real imbalance in the number and kinds of applicants across schools, indicating that district-level strategies might not be enough.”

Mimi and her co-authors, Brian A. Jacob of the University of Michigan and F. Chris Curran, a Peabody doctoral student, suggest that alternatives like teacher residency programs could help place talented teachers in high-need schools.

How to get good teachers into underperforming schools is not a new problem, but research like Mimi’s tells us that state-level policymakers and district leaders need to dig deeper if they hope to devise solutions. Salary may very well have a role to play, but so too do location, affinity and education levels.

Thorny problems like teacher hiring show just how complicated labor markets can be when the objective isn’t personal gain but a clear social good.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.