Jim Guthrie, the 76-year-old former superintendent of Nevada, proposed last week that the state pay top teachers an annual salary of $200,000.
By giving a huge raise to the top 10% of the teaching force, Guthrie argues, the state could attract more great job candidates — and at a manageable cost.
This “new paradigm to rescue Nevada public education” is outlined in a report for “free-market think tank” Nevada Policy Research Institute.
Guthrie’s proposal set off a fierce debate in Nevada, with some prominent supporters and far more people against it.
Soon the debate will go mainstream, as Guthrie prepares to unveil a national plan.
Nevada education may well need rescuing.
A 2013 report from Education Week found that the state’s high school graduation rate was just 59.2% — the lowest in the country. When 24/7 Wall Street complied the data from Education Week’s report, it ranked Nevada’s public education system second “worst” in the country.
“When compared to other states and nations,” Guthrie writes in his proposal, “Nevada’s academic achievement is unacceptably low, dropout numbers are staggeringly high, going to college is dismayingly unattractive to most Nevada high school graduates and postsecondary remedial course-taking is scandalously high.”
Ultimately, the plan isn’t designed to make teachers happier or work harder, Guthrie told Business Insider in a phone call this week. “I don’t believe that paying the very best teachers well will make all teachers better,” Guthrie said. “What I’m looking for is the selection effect.”
Teachers in Nevada can currently expect their annual salary to peak at $60,000 to $80,000, Guthrie says. Considering the extra vacation time most teachers enjoy, this is the equivalent of $72,000 to $96,000. The idea is that by paying the top 10 per cent of teachers a salary comparable to what they could earn at a big consulting firm or as a lawyer, public education will be able to attract top talent.
Guthrie notes that paying $200,000-a-year to Nevada’s 20,000 some public school teachers would be expensive, costing billions for the Nevada taxpayer. Instead, by paying just the top 10% the higher salaries, he will incentivise teacher success at a manageable cost of $200 million.
It’s a question of an evolving profession, Guthrie argues. In the past education was able to attract the best talent due to sexism — it was one of the few careers open to smart, hard-working women, Guthrie argues. Now that those women have a variety of careers open to them, Guthrie says, the profession has to work harder to attract talent.
The plan has some backers — the Las Vegas Review Journal published an op-ed supporting it.
The teachers union sees it differently. One representative bluntly called it a “really bad idea” in an interview with CBS Las Vegas.
“There is no “silver bullet” that will fix Nevada’s education system as the report boasts,” the Nevada State Education Association (a division of the national NEA union) said in a statement. “Of course we need a way to attract the best and brightest to our profession, but choosing a small percentage of teachers and lavishing them with high salaries, would, as the report suggests, capture attention, but do little more.”
Teachers deserve to be paid better, the union says, but that Guthrie’s plan is fatally flawed.
“All educators, teachers and educations support professionals deserve better pay commensurate with the professionals they are and the vital services they provide to our community,” NSEA spokesperson Nick Di Archangel explained in a followup email.
“Guthrie and NPRI’s proposal states that by providing a $200,000 salary to a select few will, as the report says, finally elevate teachers to professionals. That is insulting and is a disservice to educators, especially this week, during national teacher appreciation week.”
Among teachers themselves, there have been mixed reviews, the Las Vegas Sun reports.
Guthrie says he isn’t surprised by the reaction to the article. “Nevada is a very cautious state,” he told Business Insider, before pointing towards the strong teachers unions.
The former superintendent is no stranger to controversy. When he retired the Las Vegas Sun called him a “somewhat divisive” figure, known for bluntness and controversial statements. He’s also a man with an incredibly impressive education history, including stints as a student at Stanford and Harvard, time as the director of the Peabody centre for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and also a period as the dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
Guthrie’s basic logic is understandable — more competitiveness may produce better teachers. For example, in Finland, a country which has an education consistently ranked as one of the best in the world, teachers are required to have masters degrees and spots in teacher training programs are hotly contested. Teachers in Finland also make a salary that compares favourably to other college graduates.
One key aspect of the Guthrie’s plan requires teachers to be constantly evaluated — even those teachers earning $200,000 run the risk of losing their salary if their results fail. Guthrie’s article calls for the implementation of Value Added Assessment System like that used in Tennessee. Guthrie told Busines Insider he’s open to using other methods of measuring the success of teachers, including peer and principal review.
For teachers who already complain about bureaucracy and the problem of “teaching for tests,” however, more teacher evaluation is understandably unpopular.
Additionally, merit pay for teachers has proven unsuccessful in trial runs across the United States.
In 2011, RAND Corp. released a study into a pilot programme for performance-related teacher bonuses in New York City. At the time Education Week reported that the study showed “the program did not raise student achievement in mathematics or reading in any grade, nor did it improve teacher job satisfaction,” and called it the “final nail in the coffin of New York City’s teacher performance-pay program.”
There is no merit pay for teachers in Finland, it should be noted, and there are a number of other industries where the benefits of performance-related pay have been debated (an obvious example is finance).
Guthrie is adamant that teacher’s should be evaluated more often. “I had bosses all my life who got to judge me,” he told Business Insider. “I don’t know why teachers should be any different.”
What’s more, he says, the plan needn’t be limited to Nevada. Guthrie told Business Insider he is currently writing an article for the Atlantic Monthly on a national plan, that would cost around $40 billion a year — a cost he considered comparable to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was reauthorized as No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.
Guthrie points towards the example of the FBI, where salaries start low but special agents can eventually reach salaries of $120,000 to $130,000 after years of training and evaluation. “I was looking at the FBI,” he told Business Insider, “and I thought — wait a minute, this is what I want!”
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