Making Utah education truly exceptional – increase teacher pay

In my last post I noted that whenever I cite articles questioning connections between education spending, class size or teacher pay and education results, I invariably receive comments along the lines of “well, not in Utah.”

Yup, Utah has some of the largest class sizes in the country. (In fact, according to one analysis I’m going to cite, Utah ranks at the very top – or bottom –  in number of enrolled students per teacher: 22.3). According to the same report, published in The Atlantic, Utah ranks fourth from the bottom in teacher salaries. On the other hand, Utah ranks in the upper half on 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading scores.

By the way, another website, the “Teacher Portal” ranks teacher pay by “salary comfort index,” which also takes into account cost of living. This site gives Utah a rank of 39 – still hardly impressive, but a little higher.

Many, maybe most, of my blog readers would reply that Utah, duh, needs to increase salaries AND reduce class sizes. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but the premise of this and the posts that will follow is that we’re probably going to have to choose.

Here’s a piece of data that isn’t cited as often in accounts of Utah’s low education spending. From the Tax Foundation, which tracks tax burden by state:

Utah’s state and local tax burden is currently estimated at 9.7% of income (20th nationally), just below the national average of 9.8%. Compared to the 1977 data, Utah had a tax burden of 10.2% (22nd nationally), decreasing 0.4% overall. Currently Utah taxpayers pay $3,349 per capita in state and local taxes.

So here’s the reality. Utah voters regularly elect Republican  legislators committed to controlling spending. Utah residents produce a lot  of kids, whose parents want good schools but also face a lot of claims on their (often single) paycheck. Utah’s economy is faring much better than most states’, in part because it’s attracting high tech businesses from states like California that have failed to control spending and imposed much heavier tax burdens on their residents. These new businesses will bring new tax revenue and new, education-conscious parents.

So far I’m pretty much repeating my last post, with more data. Now let me cut to the (promised) chase. If Utah has some leeway to spend more money on education, but not a lot of leeway, where should those dollars go?

My first answer is that the state should focus on raising teacher salaries instead of on reducing class sizes.

Neither raising teacher salaries nor reducing class sizes clearly improves educational outcomes (except maybe, for lower class sizes, in grades 1-4, and even that is disputed by dueling studies.) Most states, however, have chosen to reduce class sizes and let teacher salaries stagnate. As the National Center for Education Statistics reports:

For public schools, the number of pupils per teacher—that is, the pupil/teacher ratio—declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985. After 1985, the public school pupil/teacher ratio continued to decline, reaching 17.2 in 1989. After a period of relative stability during the late 1980s through.the mid-1990s, the ratio declined from 17.3 in 1995 to 16.0 in 2000. Decreases have continued since then, and the public school pupil/teacher ratio was 15.3 in 2008.

The average salary for public school teachers in 2009–10 was $55,350, about 3 percent higher than in 1990–91, after adjustment for inflation. The salaries of public school teachers have generally maintained pace with inflation since 1990–91.

In other words, states have chosen smaller class sizes over better-paid teachers. Why do I think Utah should make a different choice?

My answer is, first, to get teachers on board with other educational reforms that may do more to improve Utah education, and to signal – strongly – that the state recognizes that teachers must lead change.

I get a little frustrated with the constant chorus of “it’s the students’ fault,” or “it’s the parents’ fault.” that kids aren’t learning more. While that’s true enough, and while there are probably some changes we can make to improve parent involvement and student commitment, for the most part good parenting is outside the control of legislators and school administrators. Still, I sympathize with teachers who argue that they take all the blame for educational failure. Raising teacher salaries would boost morale; tying higher teacher salaries to better teacher evaluation systems might win support for the latter.

I also think that higher salaries would help reconcile teachers to higher standards for entering the profession.

I’ll return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts.




  1. howard beale

    These class size statistics are really bogus. Most core classes in high school are much higher, they can be higher than 40 in some high school settings. Most elementary classes are high 20’s to low 30’s. Class size has been reduced because districts might have hired more social workers, administrators and counselors which count in how districts account for class size. The reality of what teachers are seeing is much different, certainly not 17 students in a class or whatever was reported.

    I also reject the belief that increasing salaries and decreasing class size are mutually exclusive concepts. I don’t think to give teachers higher salaries that other teachers need to be laid off or whatever. I see education as valuable infrastructure (certainly as important as supporting the military, building roads etc. Cutting education to the bare bone which is happening in Utah won’t help.

    Lastly, it should be obvious that teaching today is much different than in yesteryear and students of today have more complex issues and live in a much more complex society and world. There might not be any correlation with reducing class size recently and test scores or whatever. But common sense would seem to indicate that teaching less students would help teachers. That’s my intuition. In fact, it might be arguable that class sizes, especially in Utah, need to be reduced to effectively improve education. Again, students today are much more complex dealing with many more issues and will eventually become adults in a much complex world. I don’t think going back to the class sizes of 40 years ago, even if they were “larger” is going to help matters. It’s time to think outside the box and really invest in our children like we should.

    • Mary McConnell

      While you’re right that schools have bulked up on administrators, these figures are for teachers. Of course, that includes some teachers who work one on one with students or with very small classes (reading instructors, special ed teachers), so you’re right that many classes are larger. Again, I’d note that research on class size doesn’t show much if any impact beyond grade 4, and that many countries have much higher student/teacher ratios with strong results. (Yes, I know, it’s those dedicated Korean parents again.)

      By the way, I didn’t say anything about firing teachers. I think a few SHOULD be fired, and in other posts you’ve agreed, and argued that administrators’ feet need to be held to the fire. Still, one of Utah’s great advantages in approaching educational reform is the state’s growing population. Shrinking school districts do have to fire teachers, and it’s painful. Fortunately, Utah has the luxury of considering, for the most part, how to make its existing teaching force more effective, and how to hire even better new teachers.

      Still, by saying that we need both higher teacher salaries AND smaller classes you duck my question. Is getting Utah classes down to the national average – which would be VERY expensive – the best use of incremental resources? Remember that each new teacher comes with a benefits package, so salary alone doesn’t come close to stating the cost of hiring a new teacher. Raising existing teachers’ pay, to my mind, may produce more bang for the buck.

      Yes, I know that all of the above is still your favorite option. But suppose that all of the above isn’t one of the choices? Realistically, given Utah’s family sizes, political preferences, and commitment to staying economically competitive, I don’t think all of the above is going to be a viable choice anytime soon, if ever. So – I’m showing my economics teacher roots – what do we do on the margin? What do we do with our next education dollars?

      In subsequent posts I’m going to make suggestions about how Utah and any other state can better “leverage” its existing teaching force to improve productivity and educational outcomes. Yes, it’s a much more complex world out there. Yet public schools are still operating on a model that’s largely disappeared from the private sector: rigid work rules, lock-step pay and promotion schedules, rewards for length of service as opposed to performance. Technology has brought tremendous new opportunities to tailor education to individual students AND to measure how much they have actually learned. More sophisticated – and much fairer – value-added data tools make it easier to assess how well teachers in at least some subjects and grades are improving student learning . . . without penalizing teachers who face especially challenging classrooms.

      But let me end with a point that I know we agree on. Teachers need to lead reform . . . and educational reform won’t work if teachers are being dragged along behind a careening cart, a rope looped around their necks and the crowd shouting “lynch ’em.” That’s one of the reasons why I suggested starting with a pay increase. It sends a signal that we value teachers, and want teachers to lead.

  2. Yak_Herder

    Please allow me to re-iterate that I am not a union member. I never have been, I doubt I ever will be. I consider myself a professional, not laborer.

    That said, the “teacher demographic” in Utah deserves some scrutiny in discussions like this.

    I would imagine that we would find that Utah produces a higher percentage of teachers than most other states. I would guess that the percentage of women among teachers is higher and that retention is lower. Finally, I am pretty sure that we have a higher percentage of teachers who are earning a second income in the home than elsewhere.

    Those impressions need to be validated. If, for the sake of argument, we accept them for a minute, don’t they suggest a fairly one-sided supply and demand balance?

    Although we whine about taxes here as much (or more) as anywhere else, we aren’t that hard done by. We are a notoriously “frugal” people. We savor getting a good deal. Coupons, discounts, and bulk buying are the rage.

    Unfortunately, we carry those same values over to our children’s education.

    I would love teaching smaller classes. I cannot think of any one thing that would make a bigger difference in my ability to teach more effectively. However, that doesn’t address what Mary is taking about (actively supporting teachers by raising salaries). In fact, in the long run, it might actually dilute an individual teacher’s worth.

    I worked for 25 years in “industry”. I know what people call a “day’s work”. I knew I would be taking an enormous pay cut when I began teaching, but I had no idea how much longer the work day would be or how much more energy it would take.

    I’m not complaining. I made the choice and I really enjoy teaching. I’m stating this for a different reason. As I do the math, I just can’t fathom Utah accepting the tax increase that would be required to both 1) hire the teachers and build the buildings needed to support smaller class sizes, and 2) pay me a professional salary.

    If I had to choose (if I could choose), I would go with smaller classes. We’ve been playing with fire for too long, smugly thinking we are getting away with it. The quality of the education our children are receiving is and has been severely compromised and we sense it, don’t we?

    Before any discussion of “school reform”, we must first clearly determine what “good schools”, “good teachers”, and a “good education” really is. I don’t put much stock in someone who doesn’t understand their own frustrations. How can they possibly address them?

    Do we recognize the difference between getting “A’s” or a diploma and actually learning something? Do we want students who are prepared to vote responsibly, sit on a jury (imagine you’re the defendant), support a family, and better appreciate our world?

    The money has got to come from somewhere. Here’s one suggestion: dramatically reduce the size of the school districts. Take a good look at where the money is being spent and tell me if you don’t see a problem. Take some time and investigate the Jordan and Canyons School District split. We’ve got some hindsight now. Is anyone better off?

    So, “Wait a second” you say, “Doesn’t that mean larger districts are better, the economy of scale and all that?”

    No. The only problem with the split was that it didn’t go far enough. Reduce the size of districts to one (1) high school and the schools that feed it and then you would see dramatic changes. All the Jordan/Canyon split accomplished was a duplication of the problems. Nobody “won” there. With the kind of reduction that I am proposing, many of the “services” that seem so important now would evaporate. Moreover, it would be pretty tough for Joe Doolittle to “hide” in an organization that small. Waste and extravagance would be reduced, and the smaller size might just make it more transparent and responsive to the public.

    It sounds good, but it will never fly. The opposition would be enormous, and success would hinge on the community stepping up with greater interest and willingness to participate in day-to-day operations and decisions. I just don’t see the kind of determination it takes being manifest out there (other than among people opting out of the system). We’re too busy, so we choose to pay someone to do it for us and then complain because they send a bill.

    Let’s determine what a good school looks like, then roll up your sleeves and help make it happen. Classes will get smaller, districts will get smaller, John Q. Public will be more involved, and teachers will be both more respected and better paid.

    What we need to find is the incentive to begin marching down that path, bottle it, and then sell it. We’d be billionaires overnight.

  3. howard beale

    Yes, my perfect world of lowering class sizes and increasing teacher pay would be a paradigm shift of epic proportions. I would love to put two qualified teachers in every classroom as well. That and reducing class size significantly would be the two most simple yet most effective reforms in public education. It would cost a lot of money. I would spend a lot less on other things in our budget (federal and state) and spend tons more on education.

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