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Three Questions

Three Questions: Prof. Barbara Biasi on Teacher Pay

Earlier this year, a wave of teachers’ strikes spread across the United States, with teachers walking out in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado over pay and school funding. We asked Yale SOM’s Barbara Biasi, a labor economist with a focus on education, about the strikes and the wider implications of how we compensate teachers.

A teacher in a classroom

What prompted this recent set of teachers’ strikes? Is it a reaction to a change in policy?

Several states across the country have seen very slow growth in public school revenues and expenditures, due to a combination of economic factors and tax cuts. For teachers, this has translated into a decline in real wages (which means that their wages have been growing at a slower rate than inflation), a reduction in their benefits (such as healthcare and pensions), as well as cuts in many other inputs teachers need for their job. An extreme case is that of Oklahoma, which has shortened the school week by one day in order to reduce costs. Teacher strikes have been a reaction to a gradual worsening of the situation over time.

“Having a good teacher in fourth grade has been shown to be associated with a higher likelihood that students attend and graduate from college.”

How much does teacher pay affect educational outcomes? Is it a significant lever for improving schools?

A few existing studies have shown that modest across-the-board increases in wages of existing teachers has no direct effect on teachers’ performance or effort, and in turn no effect on students’ outcomes. However, we do not have good evidence on whether a large and sustained wage increase could attract different people to the teaching profession and in turn affect who decides to become a teacher. In addition, some of my work has shown that raising salaries for those teachers who prove to be the most effective in raising achievement helps discourage them from leaving, and even attracts similarly talented teachers from nearby schools and districts. This suggests that, if properly designed, pay can indeed be a lever for improving the success of our schools.

Are teachers paid enough? Are we thinking properly about how to value their work?

From a societal point of view, the work that teachers do is tremendously important: having a “good” teacher—i.e., one who is effective in boosting students’ test scores—in fourth grade has been shown to be associated with a higher likelihood that students attend and graduate from college, and even with higher students’ earnings 15 or 20 years later! In light of this, what we would want is a) to attract and retain these good teachers to public schools, and b) to incentivize existing teachers to do the best job they can. The question is not simply whether we should pay teachers more or less, but rather whether the current pay schemes are effective in achieving these two objectives.

Department: Three Questions