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Thursday, October 27, 2011

1% For Teachers: An Immodest Proposal for Teacher Pay

"You couldn't pay me enough to do what you do," a friend told me the other day.

"It's not for everybody," I replied. It's become my stock response in such situations because every time I'm asked that question. My only other choice seems to be to paraphrase Taylor Mali and his "What does a teacher make?" rant, but I'm not nearly as talented as him.

The fact is that, in purely financial terms, most teachers are choosing to earn less than we could in order to do what we do.

And yes, it is nice to get those emails from former students telling us how amazing we are and how much we changed their lives and how grateful they are and how much they want to be just like us. It warms the cockles of our hearts when those come through, but frankly, sweetness and love just doesn't pay off debt nearly as well as money.

This lower pay is, in part, to blame for things like high teacher turnover, low teacher morale, and the lack of quality applicants in high demand areas like math and science, as well as the resultant retardation of student progress.

If we steal Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour meme with regards to proficiency, a teacher would need to be in the classroom (figuring the average new teacher puts in 7 hours at school and an additional 1.5 at home) for 6.5 years before they were truly competent. Sadly, 50% of teachers are gone within their first five years.

But it isn't practical to raise teacher salaries. In order to achieve public/private parity we would need to cough up 21 Billion dollars annually and there is just no way that this country is going to do that. We just aren't.

So how can we bring financial reward to both strong teaching and career endurance?

I know a way.

No, I don't mean value-added evaluations. No, not at all. Test scores can only tell us the proximate measure of teacher impact. They measure growth over a 10-month period with a microscopic focus on a narrowly defined sense of progress. Sure they're better than the often random and sometimes vindictive administrative evaluations they replace, but they are not the answer.

They don't even pretend to shed light on the ultimate impact that a teacher has on his or her students.

Ultimately, the success of the teacher should be measured by the success of the student later in life. Successful people owe something to the teachers that helped create them. They are expected to provide for their parents when mom and dad are in their dotage, but Mom and Dad dealt with them for only a few hours each day between 3:00 and bed time. It's the teachers that helped civilize the beasts and turn the pop-culture-puree that passed for a brain into a formidable learning and doing machine. There needs to be some equity in the return on investment here.

I hereby propose the "1% for the Teacher" program and it will work like this:

Every taxpaying American citizen shall be offered the opportunity to earmark 1% of their tax payment to be donated directly to the teacher of their choice that they believe had the greatest impact on their ability to earn and thrive in the modern world, so long as that teacher is still employed as a teacher or the teacher has retired after fully vesting in their pension.

Imagine a world where, come tax time, we sat down and reflected in front of our 1040 or our Schedule C and asked ourselves, "who forced me to learn my multiplication tables so that I don't have to pull out a calculator to figure my yearly income based on my hourly wage?" or "Who taught me that real reward came from doing hard work right?" or "Who believed in me when I was thirteen and I didn't believe in myself?" or "Who taught me to express myself so eloquently in writing so that I could tell people off politely but firmly when they email me with a work request at 4:53?"

And then we think of Ms. Jones, or Mr. Gomez, and we check the small box labeled "1% for Teachers" and we turn to our computers and find their name and school in the database and find their 9 digit Educator Tax Donation Number and we carefully copy the number into the blanks, knowing that our favored educator will finally be rewarded for their hard work. We can choose a different teacher every year, or if one is really special, the same one over and over again.

Now imagine that you are Ms. Jones or Mr. Gomez and you've slaved over your work for the past seven years. You've sacrificed for your students. You've bought them books and lunch and clothes. You've denied yourself time with your own children (who then ask pointedly whether you love your students more than you love them. It happens, believe me.) and you've fought hard against the shortsighted and abusive interference of petty bureaucrats and politicians as they arrogantly try to explain to you how to do a job they've never done. And now you're a veteran teacher and you've found your groove -- and you've topped the salary schedule in your district, so it's never going to get much better than this financially.

Now imagine going to the mailbox one day and finding a check from the IRS made up of small sums from Little Jimmy James and that knucklehead Larry Petersen (with whom you were patient when nobody else was), and others who's names bring back memories both grand and traumatic. You look at the names and you look at the check and you know that even now, years later, they are grateful enough to provide more than just kind words. They believe that what you did -- whether it wa that day when you made them do something over, or you gave that inspirational speech to get them over the hump, or something else -- was the thing that helped make them who they are today. And you know that the money is likely to keep coming so long as you stay teaching and doing it well.

In order to compensate for the fact that teaching in a high poverty neighborhood is likely to produce less 1% income than teaching in wealthy neighborhoods, a small portion of the 1% that is donated to teachers within a district would be siphoned off to augment the donations to teachers in poorer schools. Even the 1040EZ would have a 1% for teachers box and, though no money would come directly from a low-income tax return, a donation tied to the average donor contribution would be made to the teacher named using the 1% reserve fund created by the wealthier donations.

Imagine. A system where the rewards of teaching come from those who are the only ones who can truly assess your work and come from a time when your work can truly be assessed. This would be merit pay based on the ultimate product of a teacher's labor.

It is a system that would reward long careers. It is a system that would reward making a difference to children, rather than just stuffing their heads with tested knowledge. It is a system that allows teachers to continually increase their earnings up to and beyond the point of parity. It is a system where the teachers who truly make a difference glean the benefits of the difference they make.

Mr. Nagel, Ms. Dunning, Mr. Williams, Mr. Livingston, and Mr H.: I hereby start the fight for your 1% and when this plan is implemented, I'm donating 5% each year -- one for each of you.


  1. what a wonderful idea - I always thought the income tax forms should come with a check list that notified the feds about where your tax money should go. I would check education, health, now even infrastructure and I would never have checked war/defense. I am sure others would do it differently and probably everything would get funded and I, for one, would feel SOOOOOOOOOOO much better about paying my federal taxes.

  2. Ms. Dunning and Mr. H would be on my list too. :-)