Lower Salaries for Tennessee Teachers?

Today the Tennessee State Board of Education will vote on a change to the State Minimum Salary Structure, which would result in lowering the minimum amount that public schools are required to pay their teachers. Predictably, many Tennessee teachers aren’t too happy about this. They claim that this will result in “decreased lifetime earnings” for all teachers, which has led to nearly 6,000 signatures on a petition to “protect fair and equitable pay” for teachers.

At the risk of making this my least popular blog post ever, I have a confession to make: I don’t get the outrage.

Don’t get me wrong. I love school teachers. My dad is a public school teacher, as are a great many of my friends, colleagues, and church family members. I have no desire to see any of them make a lower income. I just don’t see how the proposed changes would hurt any of them. In fact, this ought to be seen as a positive step toward improving Tennessee schools.

The purpose of the proposal is to give schools greater flexibility in their hiring. The changes are only to the minimum salary that a teacher can be offered; most school systems already pay more than the minimum, which will undoubtedly remain the case. Schools that are willing to pay higher salaries will still attract better teachers, which is why the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that teachers will have “no incentive” to seek advanced degrees is baloney.

Of course, one reality that many teachers do not want to have to face is that the laws of supply and demand are working against them. There are simply more people with education degrees than there are jobs for teachers. Ask an economics teacher what that would mean for salaries in any profession that wasn’t funded by tax dollars.

Here’s what a lower minimum salary will do for Tennessee schools and teachers:

  • Schools willing to pay competitive salaries will be more attractive to better teachers, which should in turn provide incentive for other school systems to pay more than the minimum.
  • Schools that cannot afford to pay above the minimum will be able to hire more teachers, resulting in fewer unemployed teachers.
  • Prospective college students concerned about the possibility of earning a lower salary will be less likely to major in education, reducing the surplus of qualified teachers, and increasing the relative value of those who are great teachers.
  • Under-performing* teachers will not receive automatic raises, becoming less of a burden on Tennessee tax payers.

The bottom line is this: These changes will make the market for good teachers more competitive, and competition is a good thing. The cream will still rise to the top, and the pressure on smaller, less-funded school districts will be eased. If you’re a great teacher, there will be schools willing to pay you for your talents. If you’re a newly certified teacher struggling to find a job, this will make you more employable. If you’re not a good teacher, it’s time to be willing to bring home a lower paycheck or consider another line of work. There are plenty of teachers willing to take your place.

I, for one, hope this proposal passes. Not because I don’t value teachers, but because I do.

* Note: By “under-performing” I am not referring to test scores. I agree with the TEA (and every teacher I’ve ever known) that test-based evaluation of teachers is a terrible idea. But let’s be honest. There are some teachers who are content to merely come to work and collect a pay check. There are also a great many excellent teachers who consistently go above-and-beyond. Save the pay raises for them!

2 comments on “Lower Salaries for Tennessee Teachers?

  1. Stephen says:


    I disagree with you on a few points: I think this IS likely to result in lower pay for teachers. Here is why:

    At present, public school salaries are almost ALWAYS based on a salary schedule set by a school board, and the school board’s budget almost ALWAYS requires the approval and funding of a local government body, such as a county commission or a city council. The budget then gets disbursed through a superintendent (elected) or a director (answers to the school board), and that person decides how many teachers each school under his leadership will receive. A principal only hires to fill positions; s/he has no control over what those individuals get paid.

    The fact is that there are at least three degrees of separation between a teacher and his pay rate. And at almost every level, the people through whose hands the money passes are answerable to an electorate that overwhelmingly opposes taxation. When a high percentage of the electorate is childless, there is little that can be done to convince them to raise taxes or give up other services to support education. This leads toward tremendous downward pressure on teacher salaries.

    Now then – do I think it’s a bad idea. Well…

    no. On that we agree. And here’s why:

    The current system is broken. Period. Teacher salary schedules are the worst thing that could happen to an individual teacher and to a school. No Teacher Left Behind. Individual teachers have no reason to excel (because it won’t get you more compensation,) no fear for lagging behind (because there’s little to lose, as long as you meet the minimum requirements). Higher-performing teachers get pats on the back and additional responsibilities (without additional compensation). Lower-performing teachers get grumbled about behind closed doors, but otherwise they generally get left alone. There is no incentive to become a higher-performing teacher.

    There IS incentive to get a higher degree. BUT, it need not have ANYTHING to do with what you’re teaching! Or, I should say, it needs only the obliquest relationship. This has led bottom-rung graduate programs and low-cost fly-by-night universities to spring up like weeds, cheapening the rigorous study and effort that went into many other professionals’ well-earned credentials. I could get a pretty significant raise if I got a masters in school administration. Do I need to have an administrative job to get that raise? No. I could get another raise for getting my Ed. S. in administration. Again, I could remain in the classroom to receive the benefit. Neither of these degrees would have any hope of making me a better teacher. Nothing I can learn in those programs would improve my pedagogy or my knowledge of my subject. They might prepare me for a job in administration, but if I never pursue that career path, I can still be compensated for the degree.

    So we find that obtaining advanced degrees IS incentivized, but performance is NOT. An advanced degree does not have to improve performance, and improved performance does not equal better pay.

    I personally think that principals need to be given MUCH more direct control over compensation, and that each teacher should individually negotiate for his/her own salary. Each teacher should be prepared to defend his/her teaching and ask for compensation commensurate to the contribution s/he makes.

    Employment should be at-will. A teacher who believes his job is always up for negotiation will be diligent to keep a portfolio demonstrating his worth, so that if necessary, he can take that portfolio to another school to find another job.

    THAT is a system I would enjoy working in.

    • John Gardner says:

      What you are describing is privatization of education, which is the only possible remedy for the sad state of education in this country. My brother just got his Ph.D and a great paying job at a private high school. Public education is completely broken, like you say. It’s not just that it doesn’t work; it CAN’T work. But that’s probably a second blog post.

      And for the record, I am one of those tax payers who does not want to fund public education. I have no desire to pay into a system that my kids will never be in, any more than I want to compel anyone else to pay for my kids’ education. Public school only exists because every citizen is required to pay for it. Like all tax funded endeavors, the real work is obscured by mountains of beaurocracy, making the whole thing a massively wasteful enterprise. You want higher salaries for teachers? End the beaurocracy. Allow schools to be autonomous, or at the very least restore control to local school boards for more local accountability.

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