My Turn: Declining teacher pay hurts student achievement

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2003

A recent article in the Juneau Empire gives Alaska's educators reason for concern. Recently we learned that the American Federation of Teachers annual study of teacher average salaries shows that Alaska has dropped another notch, to 10th place (actually 32nd place when salaries are adjusted to the cost of living.)

Despite the published claims of some, this is not good news for Alaskans. It means that we are losing ground to other states in our quest to provide our children the one ingredient that matters most to their education: quality educators. It means that we will have even more trouble meeting the under-funded federal mandate that requires all our children to have access to "highly qualified teachers."

What is misleading about the stories that have appeared on the AFT salary survey is the lack of historical information that puts the current figures into context. Fifteen years ago we led the nation in teacher average salary. Now we are 10th.

Our 10-year downward trend puts us at the very bottom of the barrel (51st out of 51) in terms of teacher salary increases. Over the past decade Alaska's teacher average salaries rose 10.7 percent in unadjusted dollars, but dropped 13.6 percent when you factor in increases in the cost of living. That trend accounts for us moving so quickly from first place to 10th.

But the real story is how this impacts student achievement. A recent report about the Houston, Texas, schools (once headed up by current Secretary of Education Rod Paige) should make us all stop and think. This article reveals that the so-called "Texas miracle" of improving student performance simply by instituting high-stakes testing was based on false and deliberately misleading information about student performance and student dropout rates. It turns out that thousands of students who were unable to pass these high stakes tests actually dropped out of school, while it was claimed they had transferred to other schools or passed their tests.

Taken together we see a pattern of these underfunded mandates creating pressure on schools because the mandates did not come with the resources needed to carry them out. This should be a cautionary tale for Alaskans. If we believe that putting an accountability system in place is all it takes to improve student performance, we could be replicating the Houston experience.

Accountability systems may be necessary to measure improved student performance, but they certainly are not enough. What we really need is curriculum aligned with our standards. Safe and secure schools. Engaged parents and supportive communities.

And above all, we need the highly effective educators that really make the difference for our children. Unless we can reverse the decade-old downward trend in educator salaries in Alaska, we will fail in our efforts to improve student performance. Because those educators our children need and deserve will be working with children in other states.

Rich Kronberg is president of NEA-Alaska, which represents more than 12,600 teachers and education support professionals throughout Alaska.

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