News Story

Should Teachers Be Treated Less Professionally Than Linebackers?

In March, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, sent a “Message to Congress” outlining its desired goals for K-12 public education policy and spending. Higher pay is a general theme, which fits in with the union’s ongoing “Be Proud to Say, I’m Worth Professional Pay” initiative. It quotes a study that praises the success of schools in other nations: “In South Korea, the average teacher earns more than a lawyer or an engineer.”

Yet the union’s core agenda protects a system that virtually assures that “professional pay” cannot happen. Engineers, lawyers, doctors and so forth – even unionized pro football players – are compensated based upon their individual talent and accomplishments. There is no surprise when two lawyers in the same town, each 10 years out of law school, earn wildly different incomes based on different employment choices, ambition and talent. But such a situation is virtually unheard of with Michigan’s public school teachers; they are captive to the most primitive form of collective bargaining, with the union rigorously enforcing equality of professional outcome for all of its members despite the fact that this inherently compromises equality of professional opportunity for individually valuable and talented teachers.

Choosing to flip this around so the focus is put on individual professional opportunity makes it possible that the most valuable public school teachers in America could be paid vastly more than what they are making today. And with a united and grateful public saying that they are worth every penny of it.

But it also means that some of today’s gainfully employed union teachers will make less. Or even, like disbarred lawyers, some less talented and incompetent ones could find themselves seeking a new career; also to the applause of a grateful public.

There are many reforms needed to get there and one of the most critical is to totally eliminate the single salary schedule.

Here’s how this works. An advanced degree in physical education is not equal to an advanced degree in physics. And yet in a Michigan public school, a phys ed teacher and a physics teacher, each with a master's degree in their respective fields and equal years of experience, will be making essentially, if not exactly, the same salary because that is what the single salary schedule requires.

It is no secret in our high-tech world that knowledge of hard sciences is greatly valued in the professional marketplace. For the same reason, it is also highly valued, or should be, in public education. But the system forces schools to reward the gym teacher as if knowledge and experience in his discipline is as equally valuable to students as the physics training. To paraphrase one critical account of public education: the misplaced priorities and misuse of scarce funding that this represents would be considered an act of war if inflicted on Americans by a foreign enemy. And yet, it has been the status quo for decades. 


The NEA’s explanation: “The single salary schedule is the fairest, best understood, and most widely used approach to teacher compensation -- in large part because it rewards the things that make a difference in teacher quality: knowledge and experience.”

No. A more “fair” system for the teachers, and a modestly less insane one for students and taxpayers, would be to allow schools the flexibility to adjust their budgets so as to bid up or down the cost that they are willing and able to pay to hire and retain each type of teacher. Yes, most phys ed, art and music teachers will be paid less while most of the teachers in scarcer and higher demand skills like math, physics and chemistry will be paid more. Likewise in the actual marketplace: Most professional artists and musicians are paid less than those with hard science backgrounds.

This is just the start of treating teachers like professionals. And another needed reform demonstrates why killing off the single salary schedule has been so difficult.

Bar associations are for lawyers, medical associations for doctors, and so forth. This is how professional associations operate. Yet an “education” association attempts to represent the disparate value, skill and training of the aforementioned phys ed and physics teacher, and every other type of teacher, under its “collective” bargaining umbrella. And it gets worse: The Michigan Education Association also ropes in “education support personnel,” which means bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers.

The value of this to the union is straightforward: More members = More dues = More power. They don’t much care which kind of employees pay the dues.

But the value to the individual teacher is much murkier. If the district can save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by hiring outside contractors to drive the buses, clean the schools and serve lunch, then is the paycheck of the talented chemistry teacher really being protected if her union is fighting to force the district to spend more scarce dollars than necessary serving mashed potatoes in the cafeterias?

If that chemistry teacher needs a union at all, or even a professional association, perhaps it should be one that is narrowly concerned with advancing the teaching of science rather than also worried over peculiar and pricey methods of cleaning floors and cooking french fries. Treating teachers like professionals means that they shouldn’t belong in the same “professional” association as Groundskeeper Willie or even other teachers in very different fields.

State law should be changed so that school boards are free to ignore a union whose loyalties are as conflicted and contradictory as those of the Michigan Education Association.

But reforms that recognize and reward the value of individual skills are only the beginning of what is needed to pay teachers like professionals. Reforms that reward the value of the individuals themselves are critical as well.

Consider teacher tenure. There are certainly law firms and engineering firms with inept and unethical lawyers and engineers on their payroll. There is also broad freedom to fire them. A policy of being forced to keep them would be poisonous to the success of the firm. It would also be unfair to the ethical and productive people who would be forced to carry the load and clean up messes of the troublemakers, all while working in a less effective environment and likely making less money as a result. In a word, it would be "unprofessional."

But teacher tenure can do exactly that. School districts are often forced to fork over large settlement payments to bad teachers so that they will quit. The alternative is to forge ahead through the legal morass of a tenure hearing, which may not accomplish the goal of removing the teacher and can cost the taxpayers even more

Yet the tenure system remains in place because the Michigan Education Association perpetuates a dubious idea that without it there will be rampant firings of gifted and talented staff. Responding to a modest tenure reform that moved through the Michigan Legislature this year, the MEA asserted that lawmakers were trying to make it easier for schools to fire unmarried, pregnant, homosexual and otherwise "unpopular" teachers.

Bad teachers harm students and rob taxpayers, but they also harm every other good teacher who works with them. This is not the way bad doctors and lawyers are treated. The cost of unprofessional conduct in the professional world is targeted at the bad actor and away from the already victimized co-workers. It isn’t professional to protect the unprofessional.

What is professional is for the best of them to serve as many people as reasonably possible and make the most money as a result of it. But in public education, the push is for smaller class sizes: literally fewer students in front of each of the best and most valuable teachers.

Professional associations for lawyers and doctors wouldn’t recommend a cap on the number of patients or clients that their members can accept, or that their clients and patients are necessarily harmed when more of them get access to the very best legal and medical advice available. And yet, the National Education Association’s opinion on this point is as follows:

“Reducing class sizes has a positive impact on maximizing student learning and closing achievement gaps. Simply stated -- when qualified teachers teach smaller classes in modern schools, students learn more”

When the best doctors and lawyers desire to see more patients and clients, they hire others to help them make this possible: less experienced, lower paid doctors and attorneys, and also support staff, all to maximize the number of people getting help from the highest-value talent.

This is possible in public education as well. Why should it be unthinkable that an exceptional chemistry teacher could be paid to create lesson plans and deliver lectures to class sizes of 50 or even 100 students, with teaching assistants helping to answer questions, grade papers and manage the workload?

Put another way: Why should we deny any chemistry student access to the very best teacher available merely because of an arbitrary cap on the number of chairs in a room? And why should we deny a very talented chemistry teacher an opportunity to reap the financial rewards from reaching more students with their exceptional talent?

Indeed, this plays directly into the problems with the aforementioned single salary schedule. Why shouldn’t that teacher, like a professional football player, be able to individually bargain with school districts to sign the best contract that she can so as to impact the most students?

It’s ironic: Professional football players have a union. But one of the main items sought for their members is greater flexibility to negotiate the highest individual salary that a player can receive. Should teachers be treated less professionally than linebackers?

Each of these reforms has a simple idea at its core: Individuals should be paid based on exceptional individual merit, rather than inflexible rules and contracts designed to collectively fit both the weak and strong performers. To do otherwise is to seek a mediocre outcome rather than a professional one. 


Democrat Rep. Tim Melton of Auburn Hills explains what it means to treat teachers like professionals.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.