Top-paid teachers: Blue-collar suburbs offer blue-chip pay
At Reavis High School in Burbank, staring teachers with a bachelor's degree are paid $55,091, the highest in Illinois. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
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Updated: September 9, 2012 6:11AM
If you want to take home Illinois’ top dollar in teacher pay over time, don’t head to Chicago, where beginning salaries start out strong but fade in the stretch.
Don’t even head to tony Winnetka or Lincolnshire.
Head straight to the near southwest suburbs. Blue-collar Burbank. Working-class Summit. Middle-class Oak Lawn.
A pocket of suburbs southwest of Chicago — some of them kissing the city’s border — have a blue-chip salary schedule that rewards starting teachers as well as the most veteran, highly credentialed ones with some of the steepest teacher pay in the state. Their beginning and ending teacher salaries are among the top 15 in Illinois.
The compensation surpasses even what is paid in Winnetka and Lincolnshire, where bottom and top scales are nothing to weep about, coming in among the top 25 in the state.
But the story is quite different in Chicago, which starts out strong for beginning teachers but falls over the long haul — a “front loading” phenomenon one expert said risks turning Chicago into a “farm system” for districts that pay better long term.
A starting Chicago Public School teacher with a bachelor’s degree pulled down a salary that ranked No. 16 statewide this past school year, at $50,577. Not bad. A rookie with a master’s: No. 30. But top salary for a veteran with a master’s: a drop to No. 140. And the top amount a Chicago teacher can earn: $95,887, a further tumble to No. 167 statewide.
No other district among the top 30 in starting pay had such a sharp decline in salary rank by the time a teacher reached top scale.
Those are some of the results of a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of teacher pay schedules in close to 900 Illinois school districts for this past school year, based on data provided by the Illinois State Board of Education. Districts are required to include all pension contributions in the salary schedules they give the state .
The analysis comes as Chicago is locked in teacher contract talks that a fact-finder’s long-awaited recommendation was unable to resolve. And it emerges amid growing questions nationwide about the kind of traditional salary schedules — common in Illinois and elsewhere — that reward teachers based on “steps’’ or years of experience and “lanes” or degrees and credit hours, but not necessarily for effectiveness.
“Of course there’s lots of criticism that performance and quality and caliber don’t come into the equation,’’ said Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education professor whose research has explored issues involving the teacher workplace and teacher turnover.
“And of course, those are valid criticisms. ... The catch is, it’s easier to criticize the old, traditional salary schedule than to come up with a fair and objective alternative.’’
Blue-collar but blue-chip
Overall, high-school-only districts tend to outpace elementary-only or “unit” districts, such as Chicago, that include both elementary and high school teachers, State Board data indicate.
The standout district was Reavis Township High School District 220, home to only one school — Reavis High in blue-collar Burbank. There, starting teacher salary with a bachelor’s degree was No. 1 in the state, at $55,091. Add a master’s for a rookie: No. 4. Top possible master’s pay: No. 3. Top overall: No. 4, at $132,942.
“We offer the best in order to get the best person that we can to educate our students,’’ said Raymond Negretti, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance. “They basically come here, and they are here for at least 30 years.’’
A competitive salary schedule can bring the district talented rookies that Reavis can then groom and keep over the long haul, Negretti said.
In 10 years, , only three teachers have left voluntarily for other districts, said Reavis Supt. Daniel Riordan.
“High pay brings stability,’’ Riordan said. “Without stability, you’re fighting an uphill battle.’’
Stability reduces recruitment and re-training costs, Riordan said. It helps ensure that counselors who are supposed to follow students for four years actually stay with them for four years, officials say. And it helps teachers more deeply understand their students because they also often know their siblings and parents over the long haul.
Reavis looks for the “best candidate’’ for a teaching position based on far more than a resume, Riordan said. Candidates must problem solve more than a half-dozen teaching situations during job interviews and are observed while teaching. The ability to add extra hats — as a coach or club advisor — is a plus.
Some 100 to 500 candidates apply for the rare Reavis opening, Riordan said.
The “best candidate” for Reavis’ only 2012 full-time teacher opening — in social studies — was a Chicago Public School teacher with a master’s degree and both middle-school and high school experience, Riordan said.
Because he was credited only for his two years of high-school experience on Reavis’ pay scale, the CPS defector took a pay cut to switch to Reavis, Riordan said. But the fact that CPS does not “top out as much as suburban schools … was something he factored in before he accepted the position,’’ Riordan said. “He took a bit of a pay cut this school year, but if he stays and gets tenure, he will make more money.’’
If he stays 32 years and hits top scale, he will earn $132,942, compared to $95,887 at CPS, which hits top scale at year 25 and then flattens out.
Riordan said Reavis’ pay schedule is “a factor of where the school is located” because “we have competitive salaries around us, and we use [ours] to our advantage to attract good candidates.’’
Southwest power block
Next door, Oak Lawn High School District 229 has the second highest top-salary and the No. 2 top master’s salary in the state. Argo High School District 217 in Summit has the third highest beginning salary and the 13th highest top salary.
Nearby, but a bit more affluent, Riverside-Brookfield District 208 starts off at No. 5 and ends at No. 14, and Lyons Township High School District 204 in LaGrange opens at No. 8 and closes at No. 15.
The industry and commercial businesses around Burbank allow Reavis to generate the taxes to support more lucrative salaries, Riordan said. The district includes a Fed Ex regional office and a railroad company.
Supt. Kevin O’Mara in nearby Argo High School District 217 — which includes 3M and is the home of Argo corn products — said his district’s industry also has helped fuel its competitive salaries.
“We know, based on the type and number of applicants we get when we post openings, that our compensation is a huge draw to the district,’’ O’Mara said.
Argo gets some 500 applicants per position, O’Mara said, and “I’m sure they know the salary. People who come here are very savvy. Many are straight out of college, and they know their way around a database.’’ Nowadays, teacher candidates nationwide can often find teacher contracts or salary schedules posted online.
And, like Riordan, O’Mara believes top compensation is a top reason Argo loses few teachers. “In the four years I have been there, we have lost not even one teacher to a neighboring district for compensation reasons,’’ O’Mara said.
Longevity bonuses for veteran teachers
Like 44 percent of the districts in Illinois, Reavis and Argo have so-called “longevity’’ bonuses. Those kick in after “steps,’’ which bring increased pay with each year of experience, top out. The bonuses allow veteran teachers to get flat pay raises every few years. It’s a concept Chicago Public Schools, with 25-year top scale, have yet to fully embrace.
At Argo, longevity pay tops out at year 34 of teaching. At Reavis it tops out at year 32.
Some districts continue it to the 40th year of teaching and beyond. Far to the north, in Highland Park, longevity bonuses continue to year 44 of teaching, helping boost Township High School District 113 to the 5th highest top salary in the state.
Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll said it’s not fair to compare Chicago’s salary to that of suburban and other districts that get “substantially more funding on the local level to support their schools.’’
“You can’t compare a large urban district in any way with a rural district or a suburban district at any level,’’ Carroll said. “There are too many differing factors to reach any kind of apples-to-apples comparison.’’
CPS averages about 10 applications for every open teaching position, Carroll said, and “we believe our salaries, along with other benefits, offer teachers a competitive package, which is why so many teachers apply year after year to work in our district.’’
Carroll said CPS’s salary looks strong compared to that offered in the nation’s 10 largest cities. Since 2003, some CPS teachers have enjoyed as much as a 68 percent pay increase, with steps and lanes, proving that “the district is committed to providing its teachers with competitive salaries for the great work they do for our kids.’’
However, researcher Ingersoll described CPS’ pay scale as “front loaded’’ compared to the rest of the state and “in real terms, CPS is not competing with New York, it’s competing with Springfield or Summit. ... If veteran salaries aren’t higher, you’re going to have a retention problem.’’
In fact, one 2009 University of Chicago study found the typical CPS school lost half its teachers within five years, although a third to a half of them transferred to other CPS schools.
Nationally, Ingersoll said, the ratio of urban teachers transferring to the suburbs is three times higher than that of suburban teachers transferring to urban districts.
Front loading: Short-sighted or smart?
Officials at some districts intentionally used a “front loaded’’ strategy for years, figuring they would “attract people at the lower end of the salary scale, and then when they got more expensive, a bunch would leave and they could replace them with cheaper ones,’’ Ingersoll said.
“What was not recognized by those districts is that having a revolving door of teachers is not cost free. Constantly having to rehire, to replace leaving teachers, is expensive.
“Look at the resources put into job fairs, recruiting, processing every year hundreds and hundreds of new hires. If you give them induction and mentoring and then it goes out the door to Summit, in essence, Chicago has paid to develop a good teacher for the suburban district. It’s like a farm system.’’
However, economist and education finance expert Eric Hanushek of Stanford University said front loading may not be a bad idea.
Texas data he examined indicated teachers who stayed in a district were about as effective as those who left.
“Texas districts were losing some good teachers, but were also losing some bad teachers,” he said. “It would not make sense to raise the salaries of all teachers in the district in order to stop the few good teachers who were leaving.”
On average, teachers with five years experience are just as effective, in terms of student test score gains, as teachers with 25 years experience, Hanushek said.
As a result, Hanushek said, “there’s no reason to pay to keep or attract experienced teachers. It would be very different if you had a salary schedule that paid for teacher effectiveness. Then you would want to pay a lot more for effective teachers than for average teachers.”
“None of these places are paying for performance, so you can compete with them if you want, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your student achievement will be better.’’
However, Ingersoll said some studies indicate teacher effectiveness over time merely flattens out — it doesn’t plummet. And that measure only reflects how a teacher impacts test gains. Experience, Ingersoll, can bring teachers skills that don’t necessarily show up on student tests, such as how to deal with behavior problems, handle difficult parents, nurture student self-esteem, and mentor other teachers.
“It is absurd and silly to think that a teacher, after two or three years, is as good as a veteran in all these many complicated skills that are required to do this job well,’’ Ingersoll said. “Dealing with the discipline problems of teenagers — does anyone think this is easy? I’ve done it. It’s hard.”