What other countries can teach the US about raising teacher pay

Teacher strikes swept the United States in 2018, from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and beyond.

The demands varied across states, but a raise in teacher pay was central to each. Now politicians are proposing large increases in teacher salaries at the state and Sen. Kamala Harris’ has called for an average raise in teacher pay of US$13,500 – or more than 20% – in her first term, were she to be elected president.

What would a raise in teacher salaries accomplish? As one who has studied the economics of education around the world, here’s what I know about what recent research on different countries that have boosted teacher pay.

What do teacher salaries do?

People might think that raising teachers’ salaries will result in better learning for children. One reason is that higher teacher salaries might increase teachers’ effort. When teacher salaries are low, teachers may get a second job, reducing their energy and effort at teaching. Indeed, there are reports of teachers taking second jobs in Idaho, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere. Higher teacher salaries might also increase learning if they draw more of the best and brightest college graduates into teaching.

Recent evidence from more than 30 countries shows a clear link between teachers with higher cognitive skills and subsequent student performance. And which countries have teachers with higher cognitive skills? Countries with higher teacher salaries. But the story is not that simple.

Higher teacher salaries don’t boost effort

Fifteen years ago, Indonesia embarked on a policy experiment that shed new light on how salaries affect teacher effort. Over the course of 10 years, Indonesia raised salaries by more than a quarter for a subset of teachers. They randomized the roll-out across schools, which allowed researchers to compare schools that got the raises early on to schools that wouldn’t get the raises until much later. The result? Teachers were happier, and they were less likely to hold a second job. The reform initially decreased teacher absenteeism, but that effect disappeared by the second year. Student learning remained unchanged.

In Uruguay, increasing teacher salaries by about 25% for teachers working in poor neighborhoods had little to no impact on student learning. Similar studies show the same for programs in African countries, like the Gambia and Zambia.

John Kazadi, a 4th-grade teacher, asking his students questions at the St. Louis Primary School in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Dominic Chavez/World Bank., CC BY

Raising salaries attracts and keeps good teachers

In Texas, increasing teacher pay reduced turnover, which in turn increased student performance. Likewise, national studies from the U.S. and the U.K. also find that students do better when teachers have relatively better wages.

Studies from Latin America have looked specifically at the pull factor of higher wages for civil servants – of which teachers are a subset. In Brazil, higher wages for civil servants drew more educated candidates into the service. In Mexico, higher salaries for civil servants attracted more candidates who were more conscientious and who had higher IQs. But higher salaries also attract less qualified candidates. In education, one challenge is selecting those candidates who will go on to be great teachers, which brings us to the topic of higher standards for teachers.