It’s difficult to exaggerate just how much impact a great teacher can have on a student’s life. Experienced and qualified educators can increase their students’ lifetime earnings and reduce their chances of incarceration. But in California, schools serving more students living in poverty generally have fewer experienced teachers.
In the first in a series of three stories, CalMatters’ K-12 education reporter Joe Hong analyzes one of the most prominent proposals to get more experienced teachers to work in high-poverty schools.
Researchers call it “pay flexibility” or “differentiated pay” — the idea that teachers working at high-poverty schools should be paid more than what’s outlined in their school districts’ salary schedules. Some experts say it’s a crucial step to helping close the achievement gap — the lower standardized test scores of low-income students compared to their higher-income peers.
What the Economists Say
- Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist: “If you take (differentiated pay) off the table, there’s not a lot you can do to get really high-quality teachers into poor schools.”
- Andrew Johnston, a UC Merced economist: “What happens with rigid pay schedules is that the person who’s totally checked out is being paid the same as a person who’s being a real hero for students.”
The disparities are starkest in large urban school districts, according to an analysis by CalMatters data reporter Eric Yee, who worked with Hong on this story. In San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest district, 17% of teachers at the 20 highest-poverty schools have less than five years of experience.
At the more affluent schools, just 6% have less than five years of experience. Districts in Long Beach, Oakland, and Sacramento show a similar trend. These trends align with national research showing that high-poverty communities have the least access to experienced teachers.
Teachers Union Opposes Pay Flexibility
The California Teachers Association opposes pay flexibility. Its handbook says districts use a “single salary schedule” to pay all teachers at all schools the same wages based on their experience and education levels. Single salary schedules are “less arbitrary, clearer and more predictable,” the handbook states.
Still, some local union leaders support differentiated pay in theory, while acknowledging the challenges of implementing differentiated salaries.
- John Zabala, president of the United Teachers of Richmond: “I think we have to be open to things. But I can already hear the teachers in other schools being upset that they’re not getting additional pay.”