What's on the table? Are higher salaries really the answer?

When employees are in short supply, the most common solution is to increase pay. Using that reasoning, some states are raising teacher salaries - along with tacking on large salary bonuses, paying moving expenses or helping with mortgage payments.

But what happens when you don’t have more money to throw at the problem? Welcome to Oregon.

Most of our K-12 public education revenue is fixed by the legislature through the State School Fund distribution formula. The state allocates an amount and, along with local revenue, creates equalized funding for each student. The amount per student is fixed, regardless of where you live, and, how much you must pay to live there.

When it comes to solving a problem with money, Oregon school boards have a difficult choice: sure they can increase salaries, but because of the nature of our funding system, those increases could come at the expense of programs and services. You can also “Rob Peter to pay Paul” by raiding maintenance budgets for higher salaries.

There is good news for Oregon school boards, however. Oregon’s education salaries are very competitive. We rank 12th in the nation. Other than Alaska and California, Oregon’s average teacher salary is highest among  western and mid-western states.

And while dollars are important, it’s time to look at other factors that motivate educators. You may be surprised at the research. 

Is money the motivator for new teachers? Surprisingly not. Public Agenda, a national research firm, examined this issue in a survey,  A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why. They found that money is not the holy grail guaranteed to improve teacher quality and solve the recruitment and retention problem.  While 75 percent of teachers feel that they are underpaid, 96 percent enter the profession because they love teaching. Most teachers would pass up higher salaries to work in schools with:

  • Significantly better student behavior and parental support.

  • Administrators who are strongly supportive.

  • Highly motivated and effective fellow teachers.

  • A mission and teaching philosophy similar to their own.

Unfortunately, new teachers learn about these factors after being hired because traditional  recruitment focuses on salary.

The story doesn’t stop with hiring teachers. Close to 50 percent of new teachers leave the classroom within five years and the majority in the first two years. The impact is staggering. In the next 10 years, about two-thirds of Oregon’s teachers will be new to the classroom.  Recruiting teachers who then leave is not an effective use of scarce resources.

Growing evidence backs the use of mentor programs that pair an experienced teacher with a new teacher. School boards in California, Illinois, New York and Ohio have seen attrition rates drop by up to 60 percent in schools using this approach.

School boards across the state must spend the time up front to keep teachers during their first years of teaching. That means investing in working conditions as recruitment incentives.

We need to take advantage of what motivates and attracts new teachers. We need to examine innovative ways to compensate teachers based on knowledge and skill, not just length of service. 

Innovative practices boards should consider include:

  • Using teaching philosophy and methodology, class size, and integrated curriculum as a recruitment tool.

  • Starting new teacher salaries at the average of the first three steps on the salary schedule.

  • Identifying support programs to help new teachers, including allowing more development and tuition reimbursement and creating mentor programs.

  • Establishing “grow your own” programs to encourage:

  • mid-career professionals to consider teaching;

  • instructional assistants to become teachers;

  • staff in the special education field to become teachers;

  • teachers to become administrators; and

  • administrators to become superintendents.

  • Using teachers and administrators on a recruitment team.

  • Discussing the parental and community support systems that exist in the school.