Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Competitive Pay for Public School Teachers

I once hosted a guy named Yamato who was an English teacher in a high school about 2 hours outside of Tokyo. He was traveling with all the video he had shot since leaving home a couple of weeks earlier. One shot was of his home. It was a standard suburban home, maybe 1500sqft on a single level. His yard consisted of about 10 feet of grass/landscaping on three side, and room to park a couple of cars (no garage) on the fourth. I asked how much such a home cost in Japan, and said about $300,000.

I then asked how a teacher could afford such an expensive house. He was confused at first, but when I told him that teacher didn't make a lot of money in the US, he told me that teachers and engineers are both paid about the same in Japan. There's a value statement for you right there.

But he also said that school is in session for 48 weeks per year, and that the kids are at the school from about 9am until 6pm. Yamato said he arrived at the school about 7am to prepare for the day. The kids have academics from 9am to 3pm, but then typically stay at the school until 6pm to get further training on Japanese culture and manners. You see, as the Japanese parents work more and more (they have a word which means "work-death"), they are spending less time with their kids. It's almost like a boarding school environment.
Yamato ends his day spending a couple of hours on his lesson plan for the following day, arriving home about 9pm.

One of his shots was of his teenage son riding away on a bicycle. I asked him how old his son was, and his answer was "fourteen or fifteen, I'm not sure." He spends 12 hours/day educating other kids, and doesn't know his own.

I spent 30 years in engineering and technical management. To get to the level I achieved, I worked long hours, went back to school for additional education, constantly competed with other folks for jobs, and in the end got results that my customers were willing to pay for.

It's interesting that you use the term "competitive salary" when my observation is that teachers rarely compete for jobs. Certainly there is the time when first hired, but after that, a teacher can go through a whole career getting regular raises and never feeling that his/her job was in jeopardy.

All this is the rationale behind a true voucher system. You can tell everyone that: a) they have to pay school taxes; and, b) they have to send their kids to school. The voucher system allows the parents to pick which school their kids should go to. Presumably, they'll pick a school which gets good results and starve out the ones that have ineffective teachers and inept administators.

When it comes time to pick a college, parents and students make this kind of choice all the time. Why not allow it at the elementary and secondary level as well?

My guess is that there are teachers at private schools that make a boatload of money. I would also bet that the parents paying the tuition have very little tolerance for low performing teachers and administrators. The school probably has scores of applicants for every opening, and they pick the cream of the crop.

If you want competitive salaries for teachers, then I say you need to compete for customers.

Ah ha, you say, we do compete for customers: People move into our suburban community to get access to our excellent schools, where we have high standards for teachers and administrators.

And therein lies the societal failure of our public schools. I think all those kids in the inner city should be allowed to show up at your doorstep, on publicly-funded transportation, and have the chance to enjoy a really good school system. They'll bring with them vouchers will your system can turn into the state for full reimbursement.

"But ALL the kids from the inner city will show up, and just make our good system bad," you say. Or maybe some folks will buy one of the inner city school buildings and start a school system that competes with yours. Maybe they'll do that by paying their teachers more, and spending less on non-academic stuff.

I don't mean for this to sound personal and accusatory. Some people argue that teachers shouldn't be paid as much as engineers or lawyers because teachers take the whole summer off. I have a friend who is a lawyer, and he only works about half the year. He's very good at what he does, and makes enough in half a year to maintain the lifestyle he desires (which is pretty simple). Should he get paid less because he works less than other lawyers? Heck no. People go to him and pay him what he demands because he gets results.

It's time to make the pay/performance relationship for teachers and administrators be more like that.

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