Saturday, July 22, 2006

Catholic Teacher's Salaries (and ways to improve them!)

Nationally, private school teachers make about 14,000 less dollars less per year than their public school counter-parts, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. I suspect that Catholic school teacher salaries are even less. As a matter of justice, we ought to be doing better.

But it's not so simple. Raising substantial funds to bring our teachers to par with public schools means as much as 50-100% increases in tuition, all but eliminating middle income Catholic families from being able to attend our schools and making our schools less competitive in the market-place. It doesn't help to raise teacher salaries if there are no students paying tuition!

In addition to the sacrifices our teachers make, low salaries hurt our school, too. We've been looking to hire an A.P. Physics teacher for the last five months, and it's not hard to understand why we're not having much luck. Entry level positions for recent college graduates with degrees in Physics begin anywhere from 40K to 60K in our region of the country, and frankly, teaching A.P. Physics requires teachers ideally with graduate degrees and teaching experience.

So what can we do?

First, we really have to be shrewd stewards by collecting all possible revenues, so as to be able to give teachers healthy, incremental raises each year. I've written recently on the importance of developing a generous financial aid program, which allows a school to raise tuition rates more quickly, protecting its less wealthy families even while generating funds by filling empty seats. I also wrote much earlier here about practical ways a school can increase revenues by tweaking routine operational procedures. In this article, I want to focus exclusively on teacher compensation, and look at three ideas that have merit, I believe, in attracting and sustaining teachers without breaking the bank.

1) Merit Bonuses-- The problem with raising salaries substantially across the board is that it's too expensive, and allocates scarce resources to mediocre and excellent teachers alike. Merit bonuses, if set up correctly, allow us to target our resources to the teachers we most want to hire or keep. Yet we're reluctant in Catholic schools to implement merit systems--partly because diocesan lawyers fret about potential lawsuits and partly because merit systems require us as administrators to do an exceptional job of supervising, so that we can fairly make distinctions between teachers. And who among us wants to go on record publicly as saying teacher X is better than teacher Y?

But merit systems can be set up fairly, without requiring impossibly time consuming commitments from administrators. A Catholic colleague of mine has set up a set of 7 objective criteria for her high school teachers, five of which must "checked" each year to receive an additional $5,000 bonus that year. These criteria include such things as a graduate degree, a certain number of professional development hours, a portfolio, kept according to specifications, a minimum score on a classroom evaluation (done by her), a talk or workshop at a national or regional convention in one's field, etc. Were our Board to approve of merit pay, I would probably include a certain score on the end of year evaluations of courses by students and parents as an additional criteria.

Where does she get the money to write $5,000 checks? As she points out, the criteria are sufficiently demanding to weed out all but a few teachers, so the annual cost of the system is not as high as it might first sound! But the school did have a merit fund, developed as a subset of a much larger capital campaign, and donors to the school are now encouraged to give to this fund as an option within the school's annual fund drive. But it need not be this highly endowed. Instead of a 4% increase in salaries for next year, costing the school, let's say, $50,000, the board could decide to only give 2% raises, and let the other 25,000 be distributed according to merit criteria.

2) Signing Bonuses--We read about million dollar signing bonuses for athletes, but most of us don't think about using signing bonuses in our schools. Such bonuses could work for us, especially if we're trying to land a highly competitive teacher candidate (like an A.P. Physics teacher!). The advantage of a signing bonus is three-fold: it's only a one time outlay for the school, it gives them money at exactly the time a teacher likely needs it most (especially if he or she must move into the area) and it can be targeted according to certain criteria or positions. $3,000 or so, paid up front, makes our schools more attractive.

3) Joint housing agreements--Likelier than not, there is empty rectory or convent space in your area. It sits there, empty, all year, even though the parish or religious order must pay to maintain it. Packaging a job offer with a low cost housing rental agreement could make your school a financially viable place to work, especially for a young, single person. It's a "win-win-win" for all those involved: the school pays nothing but offers a genuine "benefit", the parish/order gets some income whereas before they got none, and the young faculty member is able to save more each month from what is, alas, too puny a salary!

Conclusion: All of us understand that the quality of teachers is the most important factor in how well we educate our children. In the "old days", we could rely on the heroic commitment of the nuns to carry this load. No more. We've got to be willing to explore new paradigms and act creatively.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this topic forward. I have been teaching at a Catholic school in Michigan for 6 years now, and every year, I get more and more discouraged with my salary. An important issue that I do not feel is being talked about is the requirements of teachers to keep their teaching certificates. In Michigan, teachers are required to accumulate additional college credits in order to keep their certificate valid. A teacher must have 10 graduate credits just to renew the provisional certificate for 3 years. During that 3 year time period, we have to take an additional 8 credits to earn our professional certificate. That's about $10,000 in money spent just to stay in the profession for 8 years. Even after earning our professional certificate, we must continue our schooling as long as we are teachers. Teachers in public schools receive significant bonuses when they earn their master's degree. A colleague of mine in the same Catholic school received a one time $500 bonus after she earned her master's. That's not even equal to one graduate credit hour. I think Catholic schools should help their young teachers pay for their graduate education costs as a way to keep highly qualified teachers at Catholic schools.

Mle said...