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Educators kicked off the New York Times Schools For Tomorrow Conference on Thursday morning by addressing a recurring question among teachers: how can the status and perception of the teaching profession be elevated?

The talk soon turned to teacher salaries, and through the day, that topic came up, over and over again.

Research has shown that teachers are the single most important in-school factor for affecting student performance, so attracting and keeping good teachers has become a priority across the country. But educators at the conference stressed that the strongest teachers may be leaving the field because of concerns over salary or the belief that teaching is not a respectable profession. And, they say, the field may not be attracting the strongest potential teachers for those same reasons.

“I want teachers to be treated like brain surgeons, and assume that every single day that they go into work is a challenging day,” said Ninive Calegari, panelist and president of a non-profit advocacy group The Teacher Salary Project. “What offends me is that they then go home to financial stress, and that’s unfair and as Americans, we should be offended by that.”

As it stands now, the National Education Association reports that beginning public school teachers can be paid anywhere from around $24,000, which is the average in Montana (and the lowest in the country), to nearly $45,000, the average beginning salary in New Jersey.

Salaries also vary within states, depending on district levels, experience and the teacher’s education level. In districts that have introduced merit pay, teacher bonuses are based on how students perform on standardized tests.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a panelist and professor at Stanford University who is outspoken on education issues, highlighted the disparity between United States teacher salaries and those in high performing countries like Finland and Singapore. In those countries, teachers and doctors have comparable salaries, and teacher education programs are extremely selective.

In Finland, where only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted by teacher education programs, the teaching profession is highly respected and attracts the nation’s top college graduates.

“People respond to you depending upon how much money you make as far as the authority you have, the prestige,” said Brian Crosby, a panelist and co-chair of the English Department at Hoover High School in Glendale, California. “Teachers do not have the amount of salary they need to have the level of respect they deserve.”

The comparison to Finland and the issue of teacher salary kept coming up through the day.

“We are not Singapore, we are not Finland, we have a different set of circumstances” said Kaya Henderson, chancellor of Washington D.C. schools. “At the same time, we have to continue to hold these children to high standards.”

Some districts have seen salary levels directly affect their ability to attract and retain teachers. In Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools this summer raised beginning teacher salaries by more than $5,000 a year, to $40,000. As a result, school officials said they had a flood of applications—over 1,000 for about 540 positions.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, in North Carolina, which has experimented in the past with bonuses based on test scores, was recently identified in a study as a district that has failed to keep enough good teachers. This year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers, who start at $34,000, received their first pay raise in four years. New Superintendent Heath Morrison is also investigating how to raise morale and provide more support to teachers as a retention strategy.

But the teacher strike in Chicago, where the average teacher salary is $71,236, demonstrates that for many teachers, salary is only one critical issue. Chicago teachers are some of the highest paid in the nation, but even the offer of a 16 percent pay raise over the next four years has not deterred them from striking over other issues, like teacher evaluations and job security.

While raising salaries may not be a main focus of education reform, several members of the panel suggested that it might be the best starting point when it comes to making teaching a more respected position and attracting quality teachers. “In order for our country to be successful in the future, we need to have college students want to teach the same way they want to get into medical school,” said Ninive Calegari. “I think that that standard would really protect the future of our country.”

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