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Why Teachers in High-Minority Schools Are Paid Less

Federal data shows that teachers in minority schools are being paid $2,500 less than teachers working in whiter areas. Here's why.

Plenty of headlines popped up this week about a new analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's 2009-2010 Civil Rights Data Collection, which revealed that the average teacher working in a school serving Latino and black populations is being paid nearly $2,500 less per year than the average teacher working at a school in a whiter neighborhood. That’s a disturbing piece of data, but are these teachers deliberately being paid a lower salary?

In most places, teacher-district contracts include agreed-upon salary schedules that are binding regardless of where in a district an educator works. For example, a first-year math teacher working in Watts, a predominantly black and Latino section of Los Angeles, earns the same salary as a teacher working in the less diverse west San Fernando Valley.

What’s probably driving this salary gap is that schools with large minority populations—particularly those in low income communities—tend to have higher rates of teacher turnover. According to the data, majority black schools are twice as likely to have teachers with only one or two years of experience than schools within the same district that have a mostly white student body.

I know plenty of teachers who began their careers working in low-income, majority-minority schools because, given that high turnover, that's where the job openings were. Some of them burned out because closing the achievement gap requires some serious investment banker-style hours. When you're working so hard without support from administrators—and you have a large class that, thanks to budget cuts, has no teaching assistant, and there’s a lack of material resources—leaving for a less stressful, more lucrative job starts to sound like a good idea.

Those teachers that don't leave the profession sometimes choose to transfer to an "easier"—code word for "whiter"— school. There’s often more administrative support, and because of the realities of the achievement gap, kids are more likely to be at grade level. Families also tend to have more financial resources so they can fund raise the salary of a teacher’s assistant, and given that there are plenty of other veteran educators around to learn from, those schools often feel like places to really grow professionally.

Of course, what this means for the minority students left behind is that they miss out on being taught by higher-paid, seasoned veterans who really know their craft. Being taught year after year by neophyte teachers who are still learning how to manage a classroom and don't know their grade-level or subject matter content often ends up exacerbating the achievement gap. Then, when test scores come in and it's time to dole out merit pay, the teachers working in those whiter, higher-performing areas get bonuses while those working in minority schools go home empty-handed.

To make things truly equitable for kids, districts should require that each school, whether it's in a minority or a white neighborhood, have about the same number of first or second-year teachers and veteran educators. That would also make the average salary of each school's pool of teachers the same. Or, we could always ditch the salary schedules and give more money to teachers working their butts off to close the achievement gap, no matter how many years they have on the job.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user MoneyBlogNewz

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