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A Better Way To Pay

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Project studies innovations in teacher compensation and ways to spur more people to try new models.

Starting this summer, new teachers in Robbinsdale, Minn., can look forward to an unprecedented opportunity: the chance to earn as much as $15,000 on top of their base salaries.

After five years on the job, these teachers won't get automatic raises. Instead, they'll be required to compile portfolios showing their skills. Teachers who earn top scores will be paid an additional $15,000 a year for five years--bringing their salaries to as much as $57,800 annually.

Candidates who rack up fewer points will still be able to earn considerable sums. Every five years, all teachers will submit updated portfolios and go through the process again.

The 14,000-student suburban Minneapolis district is at the crest of a wave of interest in changing the way teachers are paid. The issue is a perennial--and sensitive--one in education, which has seen "career ladders" falter and merit-pay schemes fall apart.

This time, though, researchers are hoping they can help local educators and policymakers get it right.

Adam Urbanski

For the past four years, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of five of the nation's top research institutions funded by the U.S. Department of Education, has sponsored the Teacher Compensation Project. The multifaceted effort studies alternative ways to pay teachers and works to interest districts in new compensation models.

Union leaders and district administrators in Robbinsdale, for example, read articles by Allan Odden, the director of the project, and his colleagues and attended a project-sponsored conference last fall.

State policymakers also are listening. Last month, Gov. Pete Wilson of California called in his State of the State Address for a $1 million pilot program to link teachers' salary increases to learning specific skills needed to improve student achievement.

Jewell Gould

Mr. Odden, who held a seminar on teacher pay last summer for California researchers and policymakers, will be following the Republican governor's proposal closely as it moves through the legislature.

"When you deal with pay, you get people's attention," Mr. Odden says. "That's the nice thing about it. But that also makes it complicated."

'Stirring the Pot'

Since the early part of this century, public school teachers typically have been paid according to a single state or district salary schedule. Teachers earn more based on increased years of experience and accumulation of course credits and degrees.

Although the system is fair and equitable, it does not ensure that teachers gain the specific knowledge and skills needed to flourish in today's more decentralized schools, reformers argue. And teachers aren't financially rewarded for school improvement.

The current round of interest in teacher pay is being driven, in large part, by the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a privately organized group founded in 1987 that is building a voluntary certification system to recognize outstanding teachers. Now that the Southfield, Mich.-based national board has begun certifying teachers, states and districts are responding by giving those teachers additional pay for their expertise.

In addition, the longstanding issue that produced merit-pay plans in the 1980s is still at work: The public doesn't like the fact that teachers' pay isn't linked to job performance.

Interest in changing the way teachers are paid also was heightened by the 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, which argued that the time had come to rethink teachers' pay. The private, foundation-supported panel recommended "a career continuum" for teachers that would provide salary incentives for demonstrated knowledge and skills.

In contrast to merit-pay plans--which tried in various ways to distinguish among teachers and spread a limited pot of bonus money among those rated the highest--national certification signifies that a teacher has met high standards set by the profession. The bonuses or salary increases that teachers receive as a result are a type of "pay for skills" or "pay for knowledge," say supporters of such pay.

These same types of pay are now in use in the private sector in what are called "high-performance organizations," such as the Saturn car-manufacturing plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. In these workplaces, as in site-managed schools, workers have more autonomy and responsibility but are expected to perform in return.

For at least the past 15 years, researchers have been paying attention to the issue of teachers' compensation and examining the attempts to change it through merit pay, career ladders, or incentive systems. As the school reform movement has continued, interest in new forms of pay has been heightened by the growth of team approaches to school management and by new accountability systems that hold school people responsible for producing better results.

In 1993, Mr. Odden, a school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, got a group of researchers together with leaders of the national teachers' unions and officials from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to talk about whether changes in compensation in the private sector might apply to education. The answer was yes. The following year, Mr. Odden received a grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts to underwrite more discussion seminars on teacher pay.

Now, the project is moving on two fronts: to study existing examples of innovative pay plans and to stimulate people to put more of them in place. Mr. Odden calls this "stirring the pot."

The research portion of the project, which Carolyn Kelley directs, is focused primarily on studying school-based incentive bonuses such as those paid in Kentucky, Maryland, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district. Specifically, researchers are asking what effects these programs have on teachers' motivation to improve student achievement. A grant from the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational research and improvement provides the primary funding for the research.

"Teachers and principals are very aware of the goals these systems have set for them," Mr. Odden says. "They are beginning to channel their energies toward accomplishing the goals. We found that money matters, but it's not a gigantic element. The threat of sanctions seems to be a more powerful attention-getter."

With Pew funding, the project is gearing up to provide a series of "design seminars" on both group performance incentives and knowledge-and-skill pay that will provide an overview of the research and advice on how to design new compensation systems. Mr. Odden says, for example, that states should be wary of Kentucky's decision to let school faculties decide how to distribute reward money, an approach that he says has caused dissension in some schools.

The current round of interest in teacher pay is being driven, in large part, by the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

And last fall, the project held an invitational conference in Chicago to examine the technical issues involved in assessing teachers' practice and linking pay to knowledge and skills.

Compared with the private sector, the teacher-compensation researchers have discovered, education is much further along in devising sound assessment procedures for such purposes. In private business, Mr. Odden says, many assessments are done by peer groups. But education has Praxis, a commercial test marketed by the Educational Testing Service, the new licensure assessments under development by a consortium of some 30 states, and the national teaching-standards board's battery of exams.

Ms. Kelley doubts that the traditional salary schedule will be thrown out. "But the time is really ripe for beginning to see an evolution in the way teachers are paid," she says. "With the strong accountability context that we're in right now, there's going to continue to be a push for linking pay to performance. The question is how do that in an effective way."

Union Partners

The members of the Teacher Union Reform Network, or turn, agreed last fall to work with Mr. Odden and to try some of his ideas. The network, which Pew also funds, is made up of 20 union leaders, 10 from locals affiliated with the National Education Association and 10 from American Federation of Teachers affiliates.

A subgroup of seven union leaders--from Cincinnati; Hammond, Ind.; Memphis, Tenn.; Miami-Dade County; Minneapolis; Rochester, N.Y.; and Seattle, has pledged to explore both group and individual alternatives to the current teacher-salary schedule.

Several of the districts already are designing or have in place compensation systems that pay teachers for specific knowledge and duties. Rochester, for example, rewards teachers for dual certification in reading, for working in its professional-development academy, for accepting assignments in low-performing schools, and for national certification.

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