SEATTLE -- Lawmakers and other Washington state officials have talked a lot about focusing more on science and math education, but researchers at the University of Washington have found that despite this spoken commitment, teachers in those subjects earn less than other high school instructors.
In a report released Wednesday, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 19 of the state's 30 largest school districts pay math or science teachers less than they spend on teachers in other subjects.
The way the Washington and many other states pay teachers -- with more money going to those with more years of experience and graduate degrees -- has led to the uneven salaries.
Jobs that pay better at nearby high tech companies may also be a contributing factor in this state, because math and science teachers may be recruited away before they have a chance to reach the higher rungs on the pay ladder, said Jim Simpkins, a researcher on the report, with Marguerite Roza and Cristina Sepe.
Simpkins, who used his math degree to work at Microsoft Corp. for about five years before getting into academic research, noted that the state is home to a lot of companies that could benefit from strong math and science graduates.
"It seems reasonable that this sort of effect would be present in any state that has other opportunities for math and science teachers," Simpkins said.
Washington schools are not doing enough to compete with private industry for math and science teachers, acknowledged Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn.
There's already a shortage of math and science teachers, but Dorn expects it will be "doubly tough" when the economy turns around. He chairs a state government task force looking at education finance reform and changing the way Washington pays teachers has been part of the discussion.
Dorn thinks incentives like scholarships and student loan repayment by the state may give schools a recruiting edge.
The researchers found a lot of variety among school districts, and Simpkins said he noticed that several districts near Microsoft, including the state's largest in Seattle, have science and math teachers with at least 20 percent less teaching experience than those in other subjects.
More than a third of Seattle's math and science teachers have less than five years of teaching experience. This is significant, he notes, because many researchers have found evidence that teachers in the U.S. continue to improve for at least the first three to five years they are in the classroom.
Having more teachers with fewer than five years in the classroom indicates greater turnover and is likely related to competition from private industry.
Some districts pay high school math and science teachers up to 8 percent more than other teachers, including Tacoma, Central Kitsap and Bellevue.
The report doesn't speculate about why this may be true, but Simpkins said the reasons could include diverse market factors like Tacoma's proximity to military bases which may be sending veterans into the classroom who want to stay for awhile.
The report suggests a salary schedule tied to labor market value might result in math and science teachers being paid more than their peers. The data also questions the notion of statewide teacher compensation when labor markets vary so much across the state, the report said.
Simpkins said there's probably no simple or obvious way to design a new salary schedule that supports the state's aim to recruit and retain more math and science teachers, and compete in local labor markets.
The report doesn't take a stand on the many issues around teacher pay, or who is to blame for pay inequity. The analysis is more basic than that.
"You say you want to invest more, you're actually investing less," is how Simpkins summarizes their findings.