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Originally published Friday, November 14, 2014 at 4:21 PM

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Guest: A case for paying teachers like tech workers

Paying teachers $125,000 a year makes sense when you analyze some of the new data, write guest columnists Dick Startz and Dan Goldhaber.


Special to The Times

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HOW do businesses in Seattle and the surrounding areas support a booming high-tech sector? High-tech businesses pay high salaries to smart, hardworking employees, whose extremely high productivity more than compensates for the high wage rates.

Our schools, in contrast, are stuck in the old mode of paying modest salaries for modest results from teachers — most of whom are very hardworking, some of whom are not.

It’s time to experiment with the high wage and high productivity model for teachers. Let’s open some schools where teachers earn $125,000 a year.

The reason now is the time to experiment is that a similar experiment has been up-and-running for five years in New York City. A just-released, independent evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research shows the Brooklyn Teacher Equity Project (TEP) charter middle school has proved to be an overwhelming success. Over a four-year period, TEP students outperformed similar students at nearby schools by the equivalent of an extra 1.6 years in math and by smaller, but still nice, gains in science and language arts. We should be experimenting with perhaps half a dozen schools following similar models.

An economist’s first question is naturally, “How much extra does this all cost?” The surprising answer is “roughly zero.” What makes TEP different from the usual “spend more” solutions is that TEP lives within its means.

TEP salaries are much higher than the usual teacher salaries. To make up for this, TEP makes three large adjustments. First, class sizes are larger than usual. It turns out that getting the best teachers more than makes up for somewhat larger classes. Second, benefits are more in line with benefits in the private sector and thus a smaller fraction of compensation than is typical for schoolteachers. The savings in benefits offset a modest portion of the higher salaries. Third, teachers work longer hours and really run things. Teachers replace most administrators and other non-teacher staff members.

The second question about charter schools is always, “Did they cherry pick the students?” The answer is “no.” TEP students are almost entirely Hispanic or African American and 90 percent are on the free-lunch program. Student attrition from TEP is no different from attrition in neighboring schools.

Are there downsides? Sure. The well-paid teachers at TEP have an unusually tough job and are expected to perform to keep their jobs. (Does that sound a little like our high-tech sector?) Despite careful recruiting, many TEP teachers don’t make the cut and leave the school. And paying teachers more without increasing the budget does mean there are fewer jobs for school administrators and other non-teaching personnel.

Starting a new kind of school takes imaginative leadership and committed backers. (Still sound like high-tech?) That’s why experimentation is called for. Washington has more than 2,000 schools, most located around the Puget Sound. It’s time to experiment by turning a large handful of schools into high-pay, high-performance models.

Dick Startz is a professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He previously was an economics professor at the University of Washington. Dan Goldhaber is director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, Bothell, and director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.



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