Michael Zwaagstra: Solve Teacher Shortage by Paying Some Teachers More Money

Michael Zwaagstra: Solve Teacher Shortage by Paying Some Teachers More Money
It’s time to adjust teacher compensation to reflect the fact that some teachers are more in demand than others, writes Michael Zwaagstra. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)
Michael Zwaagstra
11/23/2023
Updated:
11/23/2023
0:00
Commentary
Many Canadian school districts are facing a teacher shortage, particularly in rural and northern parts of the country. When there aren’t enough certified teachers available, school administrators have little choice but to fill classrooms with adults who have no expertise in the subject matter being taught. Using unqualified teachers is a bad idea because it shortchanges students.
Teacher union leaders have raised the alarm about teacher shortages, and understandably they predict the situation will get worse if nothing is done. However, they typically focus on only one solution—paying all teachers more.

But this approach fails to account for basic economics, including the concept of supply and demand. In a free-market economy, prices increase when demand is high and supply is low, and decrease when the reverse is true. It’s the reason grocery stores charge more for prime rib than for dry beans and why heart surgeons get paid more than hairdressers.

In schools, some subject areas and grade levels usually have a surplus of teachers while others consistently experience a shortage. For example, school districts across the country are struggling to hire enough French immersion teachers because a huge number of parents want to enroll their children in French immersion but only a handful of teachers are qualified to teach in that program.
In addition, rural and northern regions usually find it much harder to recruit teachers than large urban centres. Most teachers prefer to live in cities and are reluctant to move to more remote locations. As a result, many urban teachers languish for years on a substitute list while rural and northern school districts desperately try to fill their empty classrooms.

So what’s the solution? Simply increasing teacher salaries across the board would do little to address the teacher shortage since there would be no money left over to incentivize stronger teachers or fill needed positions. A more targeted approach is needed.

After struggling with teacher recruitment for many years, Gold Trail School District in northern British Columbia finally has enough teachers for all its classrooms. Thanks to a generous donation from an anonymous donor, the district was able to offer a $10,000 signing bonus to each new teacher and $15,000 for new teachers in Lytton, the village ravaged by wildfire in recent years.
Increasing the pay for teachers in this school district was the key to attracting new teachers. Other school districts, such as the Frontier School Division in northern Manitoba, now also offer similar incentives. Clearly, if we want teachers to take jobs in less desirable locations, we must start paying them more. Otherwise, they will remain in urban centres where they can make just as much money—but only if they can get a job.

This same principle could be applied to subject areas as well. Because French immersion teachers are in huge demand, we should pay them more than teachers in regular English programs. This might incentivize more people to become French immersion teachers.

Similarly, if there’s a shortage of high school math and science teachers, we should increase the salaries of these teachers. Conversely, since it’s relatively easy to recruit English and social studies teachers, there’s no need to increase their salaries. It’s time we adjust teacher compensation to reflect the fact that some teachers are more in demand than others.
Finally, everyone knows that some teachers are better than others. While a full-scale merit pay system is likely unfeasible, it should at least be possible to provide higher compensation to top-performing teachers. Just as the best lawyers make more money than mediocre lawyers, it makes sense to financially reward outstanding teachers.
Unfortunately, teacher salaries are constrained by union collective agreements that limit compensation to only two factors—years of university education completed and years of experience. But research shows that there’s only a low correlation between these two factors and student achievement. Thus, it makes sense to consider other factors when compensating teachers.

Paying all teachers the same amount regardless of where they work or what they teach is shortsighted and indeed antiquated. If we’re serious about solving the teacher shortage, we need more flexibility in teacher compensation.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute. He is the author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”