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What's a Fair Wage for Teachers?

'Hard-working teachers are underpaid' in BC, says professor who led study. How best to fix that?

Katie Hyslop 26 Sep 2011TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop writes about education and youth well-being for The Tyee Solutions Society.

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How best to gauge teachers' wages? OECD says look to lawyers' salaries.

As British Columbia's teachers head into their fourth week of a teach-only job action, the BC Teachers' Federation and the BC Public School Employer's Association could not seem farther apart in collective bargaining.

The BC Teacher's Federation (BCTF) has asked for government to put teachers on par with the peers across Canada, alleging that B.C. teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country. The teachers union hasn't specified how large a wage increase it wants for its members, but across the bargaining table, the BC Public School Employer's Association (BCPSEA) has focused on Alberta, where teachers can make up to $21,000 more than B.C. teachers. Adding that suggested wage increase to the $275 million in education funding the BCTF wants restored would mean a price tag of $2 billion, according to government.

BCPSEA's counter offer is no wage increase -- the same offer the provincial government has given to other public employees since it established its net-zero mandate in 2010 -- as well as the elimination of seniority rankings, the introduction of yearly teacher evaluations, and the ability to fire teachers based on one evaluation.

The government and union aren't the only ones who can't agree on teacher pay.

Just how much teachers should earn, and what other types of work and compensation should be compared to teacher's jobs, is a subject of much debate across Canada and in the United States.

The Tyee examined different proposed methodologies in British Columbia and beyond to provide context to the discussion about the best way to compensate public school teachers.

Range of pay incentive options: BC expert Landolfi

Just one year after the introduction of Bills 27 and 28 and the imposition of a collective bargaining agreement on the teachers in 2002, the B.C.-based Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education (SAEE) released Alternative Compensation Systems, a report examining different methodologies for teacher pay.

At the time a large percentage of Canada's teachers was preparing to retire, while the number of teaching certificates granted had dropped considerably. SAEE believed the current system of teacher pay -- single-salary scale, the system used in B.C., which pays teachers based on their level of education -- was motivating teachers to improve their own education but not students'.

SAEE issued the report hoping that not only would a better paid workforce encourage more students to choose teaching, but that better paid teachers would improve student performance and schools themselves.

Author Emilio Landolfi, now a professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of the Fraser Valley, looked at five alternatives to single-salary compensation, including knowledge- and skills-based pay, and pay-per-performance and Cooperative Performance Incentives (CPIs).

"I believe that good, highly-motivated, hard-working teachers are underpaid," Landolfi told The Tyee via email, adding that he believes this applies to most teachers in B.C. "The illusion is one that teachers only work approximately six hours per day, five days per week. However, this is usually not the case as many educators often put in 60-hour (or more) work weeks."

Landolfi doesn't settle on a particular payment solution, but outlines the benefits and drawbacks of each method. He cites evidence of increased teacher motivation and academic improvement for students with the use of CPIs, which award the entire staff when the school reaches set academic goals.

He also outlines benefits for merit pay, which rewards one teacher based on their students' academic achievement. B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon suggested introducing merit pay for teachers during his run for the Liberal leadership earlier this year. But Falcon's plan wouldn't have worked in Landolfi's opinion, because the BCTF hated the idea, and Landolfi stresses that union support is needed for any new compensation system to run smoothly.

Teachers should earn as much as lawyers: OECD's Santiago

Like Landolfi and the SAEE, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) sees teacher compensation as key to attracting and retaining quality educators. In 2002, the international organization launched a global research project to pin down the key ingredients to bringing teachers where they're needed most and keep them there. Their findings were outlined in Teachers Matter, a report issued three years later in June 2005.

Like the bargaining process taking place between the BCTF and BCSPEA today, compensation is just one element in the OECD's guide to teacher retention. But according to Teachers Matter author Paulo Santiago, a senior analyst with the OECD, raising teacher salaries across the board as the BCTF is asking is not only expensive, it doesn't make sense in terms of providing incentives for teachers.

"Teachers don't make the same money across their careers, so it varies by the level of seniority and possibly performance. So the other point is also targeting salary increases. For instance, if you have lots of people retiring (and) you need to renew your teaching workforce and you need to attract lots of people into teaching, you might want to target increases of salaries for beginning teachers," he says, adding the reverse can be done for motivating older teachers.

Just how much teachers should be paid Santiago couldn't say, arguing it varies from country to country. But he believes it should be on par with the earnings of anyone with a graduate degree, including lawyers. According to the Law Society of BC, in 2005 the average salary for a lawyer in this province was $107,809, almost double what the average teacher made during this period.

Trade-offs may include pay rates

Part of the BCTF's bargaining platform is to return to the class size and composition rules that were in place before Bills 27 and 28 passed in 2002. But Santiago argues that if teachers want pay raises, in some cases they may have to make concessions on class size, or vice versa.

"If you have fewer teachers in your system with the same budget, you basically can pay them more individually. But of course the result of that is that classes will be bigger. So there might be cases, in particular when the countries face shortages, in which you actually might want to consider increasing the size of the classes so that you can actually pay teachers more and attract more teachers into the profession," he says.

The BCTF argues, however, that there is an oversupply of teachers, with many more teacher graduates produced every year than there are jobs available in the province.

One area where the OECD and the BCTF do agree is merit pay. Santiago says he likes rewards for teachers but not if they are based on individual student performance, as it is very difficult to determine the influence of one teacher on a student.

"The results of students actually do reflect a lot more than the particular impact of a single teacher, which affects not only the impact of all the teachers that the student has had throughout his or her studies, but also all the other non-school factors which influence the performance [like] socio-economic background," he says, adding the tests to determine student achievement would also be expensive to implement and encourage teachers to teach to the test instead of the curriculum.

Fair depends on where you sit

Part of the reason this bargaining process between the BCTF and BCPSEA is taking so long could be that, according to former deputy education minister Charles Ungerleider, it's difficult to determine what is a fair wage in any labour dispute because there is more than salary to take into account.

"There are things like benefits: who pays for the benefits, if it's a shared benefit what proportion is paid for by what party, the employee vs. the employer. There are issues such as working conditions that include everything from grievance procedures, performance evaluations, professional development, etc." he says. "There's a whole range of things that are addressed in any collective bargaining process, of which salary is only one component and in the process of negotiation, often trade-offs or compromises are made among the various things that the parties want."

Ungerleider, who did not go through the teacher bargaining process when he worked for B.C.'s NDP provincial government from 1998 to 2001, says what's fair pay for teachers is a difficult question to answer, and depends on what side of the table you sit. He agrees with the government mantra that giving a raise to one group of public employees would mean having to give a raise to all public employees, but adds that any group whose wages have been capped for a period of time will inevitably experience a period of catch up.

He doesn't think it's fair to compare teacher salaries between the provinces, either, as higher salaries don't appear to be drawing teachers out of British Columbia.

"We don't have a lot of inter-provincial mobility of people because of wage rates. I think we have more inter-provincial mobility when people are unemployed and move to a place where there are jobs," he says. "I don't think many people move between jurisdictions even within the province, and I stand to be corrected about this."

He also cautions teachers against using this argument to get raise, as it could backfire on them.

"I can imagine at the bargaining table there could be a conversation that goes the other way, which is to say in these other jurisdictions there are in fact people being paid less who have the same level of qualification and experience as you do. You have to be careful, not just teachers or anyone in that situation, in terms of what you articulate as a relevant comparator," he says.

While deciding what is fair compensation for teacher is complex and contentious, Ungerleider offers this simple advice: compensation that's imposed on teachers, rather than agreed to, is not likely to increase teacher quality nor advance student achievement.

[See more Tyee education coverage.]  [Tyee]

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