Why top teachers should get better pay - Grattan Institute

NSW teachers went on strike this week for better pay. The NSW Teachers Federation wants a 5 per cent pay rise for all teachers and a further 2.5 per cent for experienced teachers. But there is a better way to boost teachers’ pay and the quality of the teaching workforce.

Teachers’ starting salaries compare pretty well to other professions. What’s needed is much higher pay for the best teachers at the top of the salary scale. That would not only recognise the value of expert teachers, but also help attract the next generation of young high-achievers to teaching.

For high achievers, top teacher pay is not attractive. As we showed in our 2019 report, Attracting high achievers to teaching, high-performing teachers in their 20s are paid close to high performers in their 20s in other careers. But by the time teachers hit their 30s and 40s, their pay has stagnated, whereas the pay of their high performing peers in other professions has often leapt, as seen in the chart. International research shows that Australia’s top teacher salary is only 45 per cent higher than the starting salary, well below the OECD average of 85 per cent.

Attracting more high achievers to teaching would make a difference to the education of NSW children. Research shows that people who are good learners at school tend to make good teachers. And as we expect more and more from schools, we need the best and brightest teachers in our classrooms, so that our students have the skills for work and life.

In Australia over the past 40 years, fewer high achievers have chosen to become teachers. At the same time, the gap between teacher salaries and the salaries of other professionals grew. It’s no coincidence that there are shortages of maths and science teachers – because high performers in those fields can earn better salaries elsewhere.

Grattan Institute survey of almost 950 young high achievers in 2019 showed that more bright young Australians would take up teaching if it offered higher top-end pay and greater career challenge. Bright young people want pay rates that recognise teaching expertise rather than simply years of service.

This is not to suggest that high achievers are only concerned about themselves. Our research shows they are highly motivated by a sense of altruism – the ability to “make a difference” was the most important attribute high achievers identified in selecting a career. The problem for teaching was that the high achievers believed they could make almost as much of a difference in other careers, not just teaching.

We recommend that large increases to top-end teacher pay shouldn’t simply be handed out on the basis of experience. To achieve greater impact, more pay should come with a change in job description and a better teacher career path. In our 2020 report Top Teachers, we recommend two new expert teacher positions be created, with much higher salaries. New “Instructional Specialists” (limited to about 8 per cent of teachers) would be paid $140,000, about $40,000 more than highest pay for regular classroom teachers in NSW. New “Master Teachers’”(the top 1 per cent) would be paid up to $180,000.

Working together, these two new highly paid expert positions would be responsible for lifting the quality of the whole teaching workforce and developing other teachers around them. These positions would help to create a more coherent career structure to better build, recognise, and deploy teaching expertise in schools. The NSW government, like some other state governments, has already started creating these kind of expert teacher roles, with better pay, but there is still a long way to go to get them right.

The NSW Government should pay teachers more. But the extra money should not be a reward simply for the number of years worked, it should be a recognition of achievement and expertise. A better career path for teachers, with higher pay for new jobs for the best teachers, would attract more higher achievers to teaching – and that would mean a better education for future generations of students.

Julie Sonnemann

Principal Advisor Education
Julie is the Principal Advisor Education at Grattan. She has significant experience in education policy and system design, and has co-authored several high profile reports on effective teaching, professional learning, equity and funding.

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