Published Online: January 27, 2009
Published in Print: January 28, 2009, as School Leaders Target Salary Reform Toward Newer Teachers

School Leaders Target Salary Reform Toward Newer Teachers

Leaders in a handful of school districts are pondering the idea of “front-loading” teacher compensation by paying novices more than they would typically earn under traditional salary schedules.

Boosting new teachers’ salaries, officials in Denver, the District of Columbia, and New York City contend, would increase the applicant pool and help school systems recruit higher-caliber talent. Coupled with other changes designed to improve teacher effectiveness, the practice also could help reduce costly attrition rates among rookies, they say.

Peaking Late

Teachers earn top salaries only after many years in the field. In contrast, other professionals earn their peak salaries earlier in their careers.

“You want to allocate your money in a way that attracts new talent and rewards excellence,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who has extolled the concept in recent public appearances. “The two things most school systems pay for are longevity and seat time, neither of which has had any proven value.”

The approach taps into a movement by districts and their administrators to align “human capital” elements in the profession—teacher recruitment, compensation, evaluation, and administrative supports—strategically with goals for raising student achievement.

“The bottom line is that [the compensation system] was developed in the era of the rotary phone and the typewriter, and in the era we’re in now, we’re having to think about how to make the money move in different ways,” said Brap Jupp, the senior academic-policy adviser for the 74,000-student Denver district, which recently moved to increase salary incentives for newer teachers.

Research Mismatch

Research on the teacher-quality continuum shows that the learning curve for new teachers is steep but compressed. Teachers tend to improve rapidly during the first three to five years on the job. A teacher’s performance continues to improve after that point, but at a much less dramatic rate.

Traditional salary schedules, on the other hand, base pay on seniority and education level. Teachers’ wages begin low and increase slowly over time, topping out only after many years of service.

Economists who study teacher compensation say most salary schedules, combined with defined-benefit pension plans, tilt compensation strongly toward veteran teachers regardless of those teachers’ effectiveness at raising student achievement.

Low starting pay, they argue, discourages talented individuals who might otherwise consider teaching from giving it a try. And lock-step salary increases can drive away young teachers who feel they aren’t earning what they are worth.

The driving idea behind front-loaded pay systems is to bring the teacher-development and -compensation trajectories together, thus giving beginning teachers the opportunity to win high salaries sooner, and by extension, improving districts’ ability to recruit and retain teachers.

“The advantage of having a bigger applicant pool is that there’s more cream to skim off the top,” said Jacob L. Vigdor, a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit research organization with headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

The tricky part lies in how exactly to accomplish the goal of overhauling the salary schedule.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association supports one approach: reducing the number of salary “steps” to 10 or fewer.

“If you stop the salary schedule earlier, you have more opportunities to improve the schedule itself, and more money to put toward the beginning teachers themselves, so the step costs don’t take them up,” said Bill Raabe, the director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the NEA. The savings, he said, could also be directed to incentives for teachers who take on tougher assignments.

In a recent article in the journal Education Next, Mr. Vigdor suggested that higher salaries for new teachers should be paired with an overhaul of the costly practice of putting teachers with advanced education degrees into a higher salary tier. Little research correlates advanced degrees in education, by themselves, with improved teaching effectiveness.

Such increases, Mr. Vigdor said in an interview, should be granted only to teachers who complete master’s-degree and professional-development programs with objective evidence showing, on average, they make teachers more effective.

Putting It All Together

Denver’s ProComp initiative is a complex compensation system combining a set base pay with bonuses based on teaching in high-need schools, raising student achievement, and taking part in professional development. Begun in 2004, it was among the first large-scale functioning alternatives to the traditional salary schedule. But by 2008, district leaders found that it suffered from some of the same problems.

“What we realized, partly at the union’s prompting, was that we are least competitive in the early and mid-years of a teacher’s career,” said Mr. Jupp, who was a union representative during ProComp’s birth and has helped lead the initiative.

Data from the first iteration of the program showed that one in four teachers, on average, in the first three years of teaching, left the district, while one in 10 teachers between the fourth and seventh years left.

After extensive negotiations with the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, school system officials raised the starting salary by 3 percent and also increased bonuses for teachers who take positions in high-need subjects, hard-to-staff schools, or who raise student achievement. Now, an average starting teacher can make about $7,000 in bonuses, for a starting salary of $42,000.

The higher salaries came at the cost of the potential salary earnings of more-experienced teachers. Teachers with more than 14 years of service, for instance, earn a one-off bonus for participating in certain kinds of professional development. But that activity no longer builds their base pay, as is the case for younger colleagues.

Crucially, Denver’s ProComp incentives are based on absolute dollar amounts—an approach that differs from across-the-board pay raises. Such raises are proportional to teachers’ current salaries, therefore concentrating more money in the hands of the veterans who already earn the most.

Political Challenges

Examples such as Denver’s are few and far between, partly because changing salary schedules without alienating veteran teachers can be difficult to do in a budget-neutral way, stakeholders say.

“It’s simply more costly if more people are reaching higher levels of pay earlier on,” said James R. Carlson, the UniServ director for the Kettle Moraine, Wis., local of the NEA-affiliated Wisconsin Education Association Council. UniServ staff members provide bargaining expertise and other services to local affiliates.

“You’re faced with this problem in that you’ve got all these veteran teachers who are nearing retirement,” he said. “You can give them no raises and front-load the settlement so the entry-level salaries go up, [but] it becomes difficult to ratify that.”

Denver had more maneuvering room than most districts in that ProComp, which is annually financed at $25 million in extra property taxes, had millions of surplus dollars in its account. Even then, the new-teacher-pay element was among the hardest for district and union leaders to agree on, said Kim Ursetta, the president of the DCTA, which favored an across-the-board increase.

The union didn’t oppose the idea of offering new teachers higher salaries, Ms. Ursetta said, but the loss of base-building incentives was troubling to members who had been promised that feature when they elected to join ProComp. “There’s definitely some resentment about it,” she said.

Teachers’ union composition has also been a subtext in the 78,000-student District of Columbia schools, another school system considering a proposal for front-loading pay. Michelle A. Rhee, the schools chancellor, last year recommended allowing new hires the chance to earn cash bonuses that would raise the starting salary of teachers demonstrating effectiveness to $78,000 from a starting salary of about $42,000.

The plan garnered attention nationwide, but was never brought to a vote by the Washington Teachers’ Union, after veteran teachers decried a provision that would require them to give up their tenure for a year in exchange for the opportunity to win the bonuses.

Publicly, Ms. Rhee has said support for her proposal does not break easily along generational lines.

George Parker, the president of the WTU, said all teachers, not just new ones, should be eligible for higher salaries.

He added, “Clearly, the sustainability over time [of higher salaries] has not been established,” referring to Ms. Rhee’s plan to pay for the raises with private-foundation grants.

Opportunities Await?

There is little evidence yet to back up claims about the effects of front-loaded compensation and retooled salary schedules on applicant pools and student achievement.

Still, officials such as New York City’s Mr. Klein argue that the time is ripe for experimentation.

As part of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act, he said, the federal government could offer incentive money to districts and localities that agree to rethink teacher-compensation systems.

Mr. Klein demurred when asked whether he would pursue such changes to New York City’s salary schedule in the future, saying only that responding to the state’s financial crisis—New York state will face a $13.7 billion budget shortfall in 2010 and state aid to public education is expected to fall by 3.3 percent—will probably be the top issue on the bargaining table. The 1 million-student district’s current contract with the teachers’ union expires Oct. 31.

But even in a time of tight budgets, districts could be more innovative in linking pay to human-capital strategies, said Tim Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that trains and places novice teachers and supports changes to teacher-compensation systems.

“Everyone on the surface agrees there are variations in performance,” Mr. Daly said. “It seems like we can do some really interesting things to accelerate or decelerate progress up or down the salary scale.”

For example, he said, as a way of encouraging poor performers to leave the profession and of freeing up money for other incentives, districts could work to improve evaluations and withhold step raises from teachers who are repeatedly deemed ineffective.

Mr. Raabe of the NEA agreed that district and union leaders alike fail to take advantage of opportunities lying dormant in contracts.

“I can tell you there are hundreds, thousands of contracts that have language in them that says a step increase can be withheld for ‘just cause,’ and usually that is linked to performance,” he said. “Is it often implemented? Not that I’m aware of.”

Vol. 28, Issue 19, Pages 1,10

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