According to a survey of Florida teacher-employment records by the Brookings Institution, math and science teachers who leave their positions for jobs in the private sector tend to earn more than teachers of other subjects who make a career change. The findings support the controversial position that teacher pay should vary by subject.
The urgency of improving American students’ skills in math and science is hardly in dispute. Performance in these subjects is increasingly critical to individual and national economic success, yet far too few of our students graduate from high school equipped for post-secondary work in technical fields. For example, the ACT reports that just 46 percent of high school graduates taking its college entrance exams in 2012 met college-readiness benchmarks in math; fewer than one in three did so in science. Among all 17-year-olds, the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that as many as 36 percent lack even a basic level of math proficiency.
Improving the caliber of our math and science teachers is essential to changing this picture. A large body of evidence confirms that teacher effectiveness is a key determinant of students’ academic progress. Indeed, it is likely the case that, as President Obama has said, “The quality of math and science teachers is the most important single factor influencing whether students will succeed or fail in science, technology, engineering and math.”
Unfortunately, the same labor-market trends that have made math and science skills increasingly valuable to students may make it increasingly difficult to attract teachers with the talent and training necessary to address the challenge. Despite a recent wave of reform, the vast majority of school districts nationwide continue to pay teachers based on salary schedules that fail to differentiate among teachers based on their subject-area expertise. To the extent that teachers with technical skills have better earnings opportunities in other industries, this approach can be expected to produce fewer – perhaps even a shortage – of qualified candidates for math and science teaching jobs.