You're a teacher. Would you rather:
A.) Earn more money and teach school in a stable, middle-class or wealthy community, populated primarily by two-parent households?
B.) Earn thousands of dollars less and teach in a poor community struggling with the problems of drugs, guns and broken families?
Time's up. Put down your pencils. If you chose option "A" . . . Who would select "B" anyway? Yet this is the bizarre choice we offer teachers.
After seeing the recent results of the 1993 Maryland School Performance Report Card, I wondered why anyone would choose to teach in an impoverished community. As the results showed, demographics determine a lot about student performance. Schools in rich places almost without fail outperform those in poor places. Communities with more stable households (two parents, less unemployment) outperform those with plenty of one-parent households. Kids who go to school with breakfast in their bellies and most of their social and emotional needs fed as well, do better than kids who can depend on nothing in their world.
The test results led me to wonder: Shouldn't teachers (and administrators) who educate children in more difficult surroundings get paid more?
Undoubtedly, the kids in those communities need more help. The system we have is backward: Schools that start with the greatest socio-economic advantages also can pay the most to attract the best staff. Even within a particular school system, the senior teachers gravitate to the better schools. When Stuart Berger arrived as the new superintendent in Baltimore County last year, for example, one of the first things he vowed to do was to disperse teachers from Towson's coveted Dulaney High School and shift them to needier schools. For all the changes he's made, Dr. Berger never made good on that pledge, though, because it would have meant dragging staff involuntarily from Dulaney.
"Grotesque" is the word education researcher Robert Slavin uses to describe the inequity, not just in Maryland's school systems, but throughout the country. "Outside of South Africa and the United States, every other industrialized nation gives more to high poverty places," says Dr. Slavin, from Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.
While we argue about how efficiently school systems spend their money, everyone agrees that the teacher-student relationship is at the heart of effective schooling. Shouldn't money be used then as a carrot to foster change -- not dumped into a black hole of administration, but targeted strategically into the staffs themselves? The private-sector has long employed techniques such as "shift differentials" to compensate people to work less attractive shifts. Even in a more general sense, private business pays more to people who perform more the difficult tasks, or who shoulder the greatest responsibility for achieving the results the company desires.
I am not saying that all city teachers are inferior to their counterparts in the suburbs, or that the only worthy educators can be found in the Dulaney Highs. But any employer in a competitive market that pays less and offers tougher working FTC conditions starts with two strikes against it. In a study a few years ago, Dr. Slavin found that Baltimore city offers jobs to nearly two-thirds of its applicants; the surrounding suburban systems, meanwhile, offer jobs to only 1 or 2 of every 10 applicants. It's undeniable: Any employer who can be more selective in hiring is going to have a stronger staff.
The major problem with ensuring that educators in the tougher schools are paid accordingly is that the various jurisdictions pay what they can afford, so the rich pay more.
One system that has launched a partial attempt to address this disparity is Rochester, New York. A few years ago, it began paying teachers 5 percent more than the base salary to remain in schools in lower-income communities and mentor new teachers. The program has helped quell the natural flight of veteran teachers to the better schools, officials say.
Merit pay for teachers hasn't worked well. The evaluations of teachers are fraught with ambiguities and the staff abhors the system. Paying teachers based on where they teach, however, makes sense: The schools that need extra help are quantitatively clear. And even a public that is often hostile to teacher-pay issues would have to admit that anyone able and willing to take on what may be this nation's greatest challenge should be rewarded for it.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.