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Crunching the numbers on compensation for teachers

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The notion that paying teachers more equates to better student outcomes, turns out to be less than accurate in a recent report by Wilfrid Laurier University economics professor David Johnson.

Titled, Value for Money? Teacher Compensation and Student Outcomes in Canada’s Six Largest Provinces, the paper compares the pay scales of public school teachers in Canada’s six largest provinces. And the results are striking.

WLU economics professor David Johnson’s study compared salaries to student outcomes.
WLU economics professor David Johnson’s study compared salaries to student outcomes.

“Across Canadian provinces, although the pay differential is fairly wide you don’t get better results in the high paying provinces. That’s the kind of research question that then people can take and make of it as they wish,” Johnson said.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development argues outcomes for students across the world are better where teachers are paid relatively well. Johnson was intrigued. He decided to look into if teachers are paid relatively similar salaries across provinces. He found they aren’t and that the higher the pay the better the pension – contrary to the OECD.

Johnson says the question to ponder is, what’s fair to taxpayers?

“I think the policy maker clearly faces a tradeoff. The more you pay presumably you attract better people, but there comes a point where additional pay no longer attracts, apparently in the data the additional relative pay in Ontario doesn’t appear to attract that much better people that you get better results,” Johnson said.

He doesn’t advise stooping to the teachers’ salary levels in the United States though, or having the lowest teachers’ wages globally. The report indicates Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec as the relatively high paying provinces, with Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC as the relatively low paying provinces. Manitoba is the highest paying province by a wide margin.

Three-quarters of Ontario teachers fit into the highest pay category, with an average salary of $91,815. The same highest pay category average salary for BC teachers is $81,534.

“The main message to take away from this paper is simply that within this group of six provinces there are relative salary differences. When you look at that data there’s just no relationship between paying your teachers relatively more and getting a better result,” Johnson said.

He says the data shows that teachers’ unions can no longer make a credible argument they need to pay their teachers more to attract better teachers – a welcome observation considering the seemingly never-ending teacher strikes in Ontario.

The idea is to attract good teachers, but not overpay.

“That’s the way everybody thinks about purchasing something. You want to pay enough to get a good quality product, but not more than you need to. How much do you decide to pay for your car? How much do you decide to pay for your house? That’s all sort of the same question. I guess if we dropped salaries to the point where we didn’t retain people that would be a signal,” Johnson said.

Manitoba has some of the highest paid teachers in the country, yet students’ scores in reading, science, and mathematics are some of the lowest. The opposite can be seen in British Columbia where teachers are paid lower than in the other five large provinces, and students score higher in standardized tests.

He suggests it might be worth looking at paying teachers what they’re paid in BC, since the results clearly aren’t diminished due to lower wages.

“It does say that if Ontario pays in the mid-80s of their percentile and British Columbia pays somewhere in the mid-70s, British Columbia gets the same results as Ontario, it kind of suggests that British Columbia pays enough to attract very good people,” Johnson said.

The student results are passed on an index of output in the program for international student assessment. Students age 15 take the test internationally. Anywhere from 30 to 50 countries participate to test their students’ reading, math, and science skills. Over time, students in all 10 provinces were incorporated into the assessment, making it possible to compare outcomes across provinces because it’s the same exam being written in different places at the same time.

“We know, to put it bluntly, that good teaching matters but we’ve defined good teaching as good outcomes,” Johnson said. “And there are people in that world who say ‘well I think that’s too narrow an outcome, I don’t like using reading, writing, and mathematics as an outcome,’ and to those people I guess I say well what would you like to use?”

He continued, “I realize it’s not the be all and end all, but if that’s not what an elementary school is doing then what are they doing?”

According to Johnson, provinces now have negotiating room to restrict increases in teacher compensation. Pensions should also be examined, as BC teachers’ pensions are substantially lower than Ontario’s, with minimal repercussions. Politicians would be wise to consider this, with education accounting for the second largest spending in their budget, behind healthcare.

“The argument is made on an international level and that argument has certainly been taken up by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation saying this is a good thing that we pay teachers a lot because international data says the more you pay your teachers the better your results and that does not appear to be true within the data for these six provinces,” Johnson said.

Read the complete study below.

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