A Coupla Rich Guys Sitting Around Talking

by Robert Pondiscio
December 1st, 2010

Newsweek columnist Jonathan “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” Alter, who seems determined to be Bill Gates’  Boswell, believes along with his muse, that seniority “is the two-headed monster of education—it’s expensive and harmful.”  (Hey, isn’t that true of columnists too?).  Abolishing seniority rights is “a moral issue,” he writes. ”Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?”

“In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ ”

I’m no economist, but unless I’m very much mistaken there lots of other parts of the economy where pay is not tied to performance.  Like, oh, nearly all of it.  Government spending accounts for about 30% of U.S. economic activity.  Just about all public employees tend to get across the board annual raises of 2-4% in both good times and bad.  (I’d be curious to know what percentage of government employees have their pay tied to performance at any level; White House employees, incidentally, seem to have enjoyed especially nice raises this year relative to the country at large).  And those of us who have spent time in corporate America can attest that annual pay raises are not  always rigorously tied to performance.  To wit:  only 14% of U.S. companies have instituted wage freezes this year, even as the economy suffers through a “troubling slowdown” of economic growth.  Clearly huge numbers of people are benefitting from pay increases not tied to performance.  And next year, the divide between pay and performance in the private sector may be even wider.  A recent survey shows 98 percent of U.S. companies plan to award  an average 2.9 percent base pay increase in 2011;  just 2 percent of companies are planning across-the-board salary freezes.

Again, I’m no economist, but if corporate pay raises at all levels are expected to rise 3 percent in 2011, that’s about 50% greater than current GDP growth.  None of this is to say that teacher pay should not be tied to performance.  Merely that it’s odd to suggest that teachers are outliers.


  1. Teachers are outliers of the norm in the private sector in many ways (although they’re not really outliers among the public workforce).

    First, pay increases at a given position may not be tied to performance in the corporate world, but promotions are. If I want to teach forever, the only promotion I can really get is an increase in my salary. So, in that sense, teachers are “promoted” for seniority while private sector employees are promoted for performance (the worst employees of a company aren’t going to be promoted to be the CEO… but the worst teachers might see the promotion of their salaries to the top of the salary schedule if they stick around long enough).

    Second, pay freezes among educators is due, in part, to the fact that teachers aren’t being cut as much as they would be without federal supplements to their district budgets. If corporations had the same work force as they did five years ago, you would see a lot higher portion of the private sector freezing pay. Corporations can afford to give pay increases, in part, because they employ fewer people.

    Third, you can’t overlook retirement benefits. Who in the private sector gets the kind of defined-benefit plan that public employees do? I know every state is different, but if you factor in my retirement benefits in Illinois my pay isn’t that bad and the income I’ll earn from now through retirement actually increases dramatically.

    I agree that teachers shouldn’t be singled out among other public employees, but there are definitely lots of reasons to support the contention that teachers are outliers among the whole workforce.

    Being a relatively new teacher, it is very frustrating that poor teachers who have worked for decades in my building make drastically higher salaries than I do and there is nothing I can do to see my salary “promoted” other than to hope I don’t burn out before a couple more decades pass.

    Comment by Anthony Guzzaldo — December 1, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  2. I’m not opposed to performance pay at all. I worry about a blunt instrument performance measures that encourage bad practice. I’m irritated however, by the tired argument that somehow teachers are unusually accountability averse.

    One of the ironies is that we tend to reward/promote our best teachers by taking them out of the classroom and making them administrators and coaches. When was the last time a baseball team “promoted” its best hitter to batting coach?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 1, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  3. I agree with Robert Pondiscio that teachers aren’t outliers compared to other government employees. Living in the DC suburbs, I see most federal government employees getting small pay increases each year as their seniority increases; same with state employees. In fact, most jobs reward people with higher salaries (or at least a cost-of-living adjustment) as they progress. The assumption seems to be that as you become more experienced working in the organization, you are more valuable and should be rewarded.

    I do agree with Anthony Guzzaldo that it’s frustrating for new, hardworking teachers to see senior teachers making more money, but I’d be nervous about instituting pay for performance instead. Pay for performance (rather than pay for seniority) is probably either going to be predicated on principal evaluations (which are subjective and prone to “favorites”) or student test taking (which is unreliable for evaluating teachers in the short term, especially teachers of non-tested subjects, and teachers who don’t have several years of teaching the same subject in the same school).

    Comment by Attorney DC — December 1, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  4. What I would ask Mr. Alter is this: Can you defend a system where young teachers are kept because they are cheaper? In NYC I fear this is a definite possibility- because LIFO is on the ropes (spearheaded in part, ironically,by two young teachers who’ve already quit teaching) and Joel Klein’s funding formulas for schools. Ideally, it SHOULD come down to performance- but I’ll be surprised if it does. I think it’s more likely to come down to, “Well, if I layoff this teacher who makes $90k I can keep the two new teachers.” I think there is also a real tendency to automatically think of young teachers as bright, hardworking and top-notch, while those of us who’ve been around a while are dead wood, lazy and just waiting for retirement. And while those people exist I daresay they are a very small percentage.

    Comment by TJ — December 1, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

  5. Good points here. At the bottom is a core idea that we expect our standard of living to improve with time. We shouldn’t have to compete with 22 year olds right out of college with no family and civic obligations holding them back from working 70 hour weeks. At the bottom we want to be able to enjoy life and not always engage in a continuous fight for survival with our fellow colleagues. In most peoples’ lives there are spells where they just can’t give 110% and to punish them by firing them is ridiculous. It is to reduce us to mere cogs in a wheel and forget about our humanity. Only the elite with all their advantageous and those who have never faced adversity would recommend a system that does not protect seniority.Imagine for a second how much loyalty we will have left of our workers if we do away with seniority. Is there even loyalty left in America? Our corporations abandoned us years ago and the choice movement is eroding it in our public schools system.

    Comment by Pete — December 1, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  6. AttorneyDC,
    I agree with you. Using principal evaluations or (worse) value-added measures for performance pay purposes is highly problematic.

    There has got to be a better way than salary schedules, though.

    In the private sector, one might expect to see a significance in pay over time with promotions to new jobs with greater responsibilities.

    With teachers, the disparity in pay between teachers of different experience levels is huge, but the teachers are doing the SAME job.

    I could see establishing multiple tiers of teachers that allow for substantial pay increases as one moves up the tiers. For example, new teachers could occupy the lowest tier with opportunities to move to higher tiers by moving from an initial to standard certificate (in IL, at least), by earning a reputable master’s degree, etc. That way, teachers would receive bonuses for achievement. But, you wouldn’t see an enormous difference in pay between teachers of different experience levels.

    In my district, new teachers start at about $35k and the top end of the schedule is over $70k. How can that disparity be justified when there isn’t a difference in the job being performed?

    Comment by Anthony Guzzaldo — December 1, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

  7. Remarkable how so many education experts are fascinated with business models, but they only want to import the worst of business into education: bottom-line utilitarianism, relentless fad-chasing and gimmickry, obnoxious pseudo-science, golden parachutes, and executive incompetence. Fact is, there’s almost as much fraud and chicanery in the world of business management as there is in public education (see The Management Myth, by Matthew Stewart).

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — December 1, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

  8. Pete,

    Dangerous statements from a civil service mentality, “At the bottom we want to be able to enjoy life and not always engage in a continuous fight for survival with our fellow colleagues.” “We shouldn’t have to compete with 22 year olds right out of college with no family and civic obligations holding them back from working 70 hour weeks.”

    Don’t let parents in your school/district hear you make statements like this. They won’t like it at all.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 1, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  9. It seems to me that the $35K starting salaries are a large part of the problem. College graduates aren’t likely to take starting salaries that low unless there’s a reasonable likelihood of job security, and higher pay in a future years.

    In many fields, the pattern is the opposite — high salaries go to the new recruits, and raises afterwards are few an far between unless you move to a different job.

    Comment by Rachel — December 2, 2010 @ 1:57 am

  10. Jonathan Alter makes $2m / year.

    Comment by Observer — December 2, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  11. Perhaps seniority is the two headed monster in education. Seniority should be considered but should not be the main reason for deciding in this tight economy who keeps their teaching jobs. In Education changes have to be made just as society changes so does the classroom. Teachers should be judged on their performance an their ability to keep up with the new and challenging students in today’s classrooms. As far as pay is concerned it should be based on performance of the teacher.

    Comment by janice brown — December 26, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

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