‘American Teacher’ film argues teachers aren’t paid enough, but ignores merit pay debate

The new documentary "American Teacher" argues that the country's 3.2 million teachers are under-compensated and under-valued. The film profiles four enthusiastic public school teachers who are struggling to survive on their salaries. One teacher reluctantly leaves his job for a better salary as a real estate agent. (A former student of his tells the camera she cried when he left.) And another holds down an after-school job at a consumer electronics store to make ends meet, dreading "embarrassing" run-ins with acquaintances at the store.

The leaders of both major teachers' unions, Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, introduced the documentary at its premiere Sunday evening in New York City's Rockefeller Center, praising the film for raising awareness about how hard the nation's educators work. The movie cites a 2006 survey by the National Education Association union finding that 62 percent of teachers hold second jobs to make ends meet. Nearly half of all teachers leave before their fifth year, many citing the low salary and difficult working conditions.

But the film suggests that there is some sort of broad consensus about the need to pay teachers more--and that is not actually the case. The movement for education reform is fairly split on whether to raise base salaries altogether or to compensate some teachers more by handing out bonuses based on student test scores.

Stanford Economist Eric Hanushek is firmly in the latter camp. The documentary shows him citing his own research that shows that a top teacher can impart a year and a half's worth of learning, while a teacher in the bottom 5 percent of the pack can only teach half a year's worth of material over a year. Hanushek calculates that a child will earn $20,000 more over his lifetime if he spends one year with a top teacher instead of an average teacher.

But Hanushek's position is that raising teacher pay across the board would have little to no effect on students' test scores. His opinion is that schools should let people without education degrees become teachers through alternate certification programs, fire more teachers who are not raising student test scores, and hand out bonuses to those who are lifting scores, called "merit pay."

"We do have to compete for people who are good in the classroom, but paying everybody the same amount more doesn't mean that you'll get better teachers," he said in an interview in 2005. "You know, bad teachers like more salary as much as good teachers, as far as I can tell."

Meanwhile, Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was a top Obama education adviser during his campaign and opposes merit pay, tells the documentary's producers that low pay is leading to high teacher turnover. More than 45 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year, rendering schools "leaky buckets," she says. (Hanushek, meanwhile, has dismissed teacher turnover as a minor problem.)

It's a bit disorienting to see the two quoted in succession, as if everyone in the divisive world of education reform agrees on how to evaluate and pay teachers. In reality, the unions are in general opposed to merit pay, and research so far suggests that instituting merit pay may not improve school performance.

The Obama administration has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into merit pay programs, even though studies of such programs in Nashville and New York City concluded they don't help lift student achievement. Merit pay programs have been fiercely opposed by the NEA, the largest teachers' union, but the American Federation of Teachers' Weingarten endorsed trying a form of it in New York City in 2008.

The debate is important because it could help determine the role unions will play in future school-reform efforts. Some proponents of paying teachers as well as other college-trained professionals--such as engineers--have suggested that such a system would require unions to fundamentally alter their collective-bargaining approach. In fact, the one example of a school in the documentary that does pay its teachers very well--The Equity Project charter school in New York--does not use a unionized workforce. Teachers at the Equity Project can be fired at will if they are not lifting their students' achievement levels.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued in August that teachers should make a starting salary of $60,000 with the opportunity to earn up to $150,000 per year. But he hinted that such a step would require a trade-off. "If teachers are to be treated and compensated as the true professionals they are, the profession will need to shift away from an industrial-era blue-collar model of compensation to rewarding effectiveness and performance," he said.