Here’s What Happens When A School Pays Its Teachers A Lot, Lot More Money

What if teachers were paid salaries more on par with doctors and lawyers? Lo and behold, the teachers perform better and students learn more.

Here’s What Happens When A School Pays Its Teachers A Lot, Lot More Money
[Photos: Flickr user Christopher Sessums]

Having a great teacher can change a child’s life, a fact that many people know from experience or at least from countless inspirational movies. And better than average teacher quality is considered one of the most important factors–if not the most important factor–to improving the nation’s schools as a whole.


So often the question is asked: If high-quality teachers are so valuable, why don’t we pay them more? If even first-year doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, and programmers can pull in more than $100,000, why are experienced teachers in the nation’s most expensive city to live only paid between $64,000 and $76,000?

For the last five years, one charter middle school in Manhattan has been conducting a radical experiment in doing exactly that. The Equity Project pays its teachers a salary of $125,000 a year, with extra bonuses based on performance. It also expects a lot more from them, including longer hours and slightly larger classes, four weeks of professional development a year, and regular reviews once hired.

The result? According to the Wall Street Journal, the first long-term study to evaluate the school shows that its unusual model is producing results. The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, compared the school’s 480 students with students in a nearby public district school who had similar initial test scores, family incomes, and other demographics (the neighborhood is mostly Hispanic). As the WSJ reports:

After four years at the charter school, eighth-graders showed average test score gains in math equal to an additional year and a half of school, compared with district students. The study found these charter students’ gains equaled more than an extra half-year in science and almost an extra half-year in English.

Not that there weren’t challenges. One was teacher retention. Of the 43 teachers who made it through the school’s rigorous interview process and were hired during the study, 47% only lasted one year, whereas the nearby district school only had a 27% turnover rate. Most of the time, it was because they weren’t asked back. The Equity Project is now attempting to address teacher burnout and improve retention. And while the Equity Project students performed better on average than their counterparts, only 43% of students passed the state’s math tests in 2013 (though the city average is only 26%).

The school had to make compromises to pay the teacher’s so much, including a larger class size and a meager administrative staff, in its effort to create a “sustainable and conservative financial model” that avoids outside private funding. Some compromises were also by design–the school’s principal is paid less than the teachers to encourage the best teachers to stay in the classroom.

Though it’s not clear The Equity Project’s model would work everywhere or on a much wider scale, what is clear is that higher teacher pay for great teachers may be a relatively simple solution to add to the mix in the complicated debate over school reform.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.