With state budgets buckling, American teachers are facing the erosion of tenure protection, employee benefits, and other job protections that they fought for and won years ago.
The status teachers enjoy in many other countries often eludes them in the U.S., with public sentiment bouncing from embracing them as heroic warriors on the front lines of any number of social “wars” — whether the culprit of the day is drugs, gang violence, or poverty — to dismissing them with the insulting old saw, “those who can’t do, teach.”
Only a few years ago, there was a clamor to train, treat and pay teachers better to encourage bright young people to choose teaching over more lucrative options like finance and law.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama extolled teachers, telling “every young person listening tonight who is contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher. Your country needs you.”
Such sentiments have quickly come full circle amid the riveting battle in Wisconsin, where teachers, along with other unionized workers — except for firefighters and police — have been at the center of Governor Scott Walker’s push to end collective bargaining. His success, however temporary, has given a veneer of credibility to those who are pushing to sever the links between a teacher’s experience on the job and their job security.
It didn’t take long for Indiana, Idaho and Utah to join in the quest to limit teacher rights. Last week, Florida’s legislature also cleared the way to end tenure for new teachers and tie teacher compensation and longevity to how well their students perform on standardized performance tests.
The states all cited budget constraints when pushing for these cuts, but nettled teachers feel that their economic and professional framework has now been yanked out from under them.
“It’s a lack of respect,” says Gloria Rubin, of Fairfax County, Va., who has taught and counseled students for more than three decades. “Our culture doesn’t value teaching. People think we have it easy, with short hours and the summers off. But everyone wants their child to have the best teacher.”
Does pay for performance yield educational dividends?
As the country struggles to upgrade its educational system, the idea of linking student performance with teacher compensation has become a mantra within education circles and beyond. The Obama administration zealously adopted the idea, handing out millions of dollars in “Race to the Top” funds to school systems willing to jettison traditional educational practices in favor of alternative teacher evaluation methods.
Despite this embrace, the idea of linking pay to performance has already been tested by a major school system — New York City — without any meaningful improvement, according to a Harvard University study released this month.
Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard, examined New York City’s three-year pilot that tied teacher salaries to school performance. The $75 million program, which has since been terminated, was launched in 2007 to lift student performance in the vast, troubled public school system.
Fryer’s study scrutinized the results of the initiative in 200 schools, looking at one set of schools that participated in the performance-based pay program and another group of schools that did not take part. The study found no meaningful improvement at participating schools. Test scores did not rise, and the program had only a negligible effect on grades, student behavior, attendance, or graduation rates.
A significant flaw in the program, the report pointed out, was that most schools allocated the bonus money equally to their teachers, and did not parcel out the money in a way that recognized specific teacher achievements in the classroom.
Incentives tailored to a city’s particular circumstances can improve classroom learning, according to a separate report published last year by Harvard’s Educational Innovation Laboratory, which Fryer heads. Further study, Fryer says, could show “it might be less effective to give teachers incentive pay based on outputs [test scores of their students]” than to reward them for actions like staying after school to tutor their students.
Salary vs. benefits
Advocates of tying teacher compensation to performance maintain that the issue is not the level of pay. Economists at conservative-oriented think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute argue that there is no significant difference in pay for public employees, like teachers, when compared to private employees. But benefits, including pensions and health coverage, tip the balance, says Andrew Biggs of AEI.
Teachers counter that they have long traded away salary in return for set pensions, earlier retirement and health care benefits. Since these costs are high — and rising — and funded by taxpayers, they are the focus of public ire — not teachers themselves.
“It’s all economy driven,” says Rubin, who counsels high school students at Jeb Stuart high school in Virginia. “People resent that we have benefits like health insurance when they don’t.”
Veteran teachers fear that they will lose job protections, with the specter of new graduates being hired on the cheap to replace them.
“The younger teachers may be more tech savvy,” Rubin admits, “But there is a lot to be said for experience.”
Teachers as ‘nation builders’
While the interest in raising the status of American teachers seems to have faded, studies continue to find that recruiting more qualified applicants, and giving them better training and better pay, would bolster public school education.
A survey of global school systems released last week awarded top marks to Korea and Finland because of the social value they place on teachers. These countries, as well as Singapore, hire only high-performing college graduates and provide them with strong support, including training and mentoring, to strengthen their classroom performance.
It’s a kind of “Teach for America” program — writ large — where top-performing graduates are recruited and sent into classrooms.
The difference, of course, is that Teach for America attracts fresh graduates who are not necessarily committed to devoting their careers to teaching, and the salary certainly doesn’t help matters. An experienced elementary teacher in the American public school system makes $44,172, which is 40% below the average salary of their fellow college graduates in other fields, according to “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” released earlier this month by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.
Without the current framework for teacher salaries and security, Rubin says, “I think I would no longer be middle class.”
More from Fortune.com: