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Rethinking Teacher Pay

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When district and union officials in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, began discussing changes in the district's pay system, local teachers were hardly enthusiastic. After all, Robbinsdale's salary schedule, like those in most districts, was consistent and fair, rewarding years on the job and hours of training.

Though veteran teachers were generally satisfied with the way they were paid, taxpayers in the small Minneapolis suburb were not. They wanted a pay system that in some way held teachers accountable, one that linked salary to demonstrated skill and knowledge—not just to seniority and class time.

This past fall, the taxpayers got what they wanted.

Under a negotiated pay scheme, new district teachers won't get automatic raises after their first five years on the job. Instead, they'll be required to compile portfolios that document their skill and ability. Teachers who earn top marks on the portfolios will be paid an additional $15,000 a year for five years, at which point everyone will go through the process again.

Robbinsdale is riding a new wave of interest in changing the way teachers are paid. The issue is a sensitive one. Over the years, many districts and a handful of states have experimented—usually against the wishes of teachers—with career-ladder and merit-pay schemes. Most have not worked.

This time, though, researchers are hoping they can help educators and policymakers get it right. For the past four years, a federally funded group of five top research institutions—the Consortium for Policy Research in Education—has been studying alternative pay systems for teachers and trying to interest districts in models that work.

Before embarking on their new salary plan, officials in Robbinsdale read articles by Allan Odden, director of the consortium's Teacher Compensation Project, and attended a consortium- sponsored conference on the topic.

State policymakers also are listening. In January, Governor Pete Wilson of California used his State of the State Address to call for a $1 million pilot program to link teacher raises to learning specific skills and knowledge. Odden, who held a seminar on teacher pay last summer for California researchers and policymakers, intends to follow the Republican governor's proposal as it moves through the legislature.

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

Since early this century, public school teachers typically have been paid according to a single state or district salary schedule. Teachers earn more as they accumulate years of experience, course credits, and degrees. Although the system is fair and equitable, it does not ensure that teachers improve their knowledge and skill. Nor does it reward teachers for school improvement.

The latest interest in teacher pay is being driven, in part, by the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a privately organized group that is building a voluntary certification system to recognize outstanding teachers. Now that the board has begun certifying teachers, states and districts are responding by giving those teachers additional pay.

The 1996 report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future added momentum to the board's work. The panel, supported by a private foundation, recommended "a career continuum" for teachers that would provide salary incentives for demonstrated knowledge and skill. [See "Teaching Matters," October 1996.]

In contrast to merit-pay plans—which tried to distinguish among teachers and spread limited bonus money among those rated the highest— national certification rewards any teacher who has met high standards set by the profession. Bonuses or salary increases tied to this certification, then, are a type of pay for performance or skill.

For the past 15 years, researchers have been examining traditional teacher compensation and attempts to change it through merit pay, career ladders, and other incentive systems. In 1993, Odden, a school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, brought a group of researchers together with officials from the two national teachers' unions and the certification board to talk about salary issues. The following year, he received a grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts to underwrite more discussion.

Now, Odden's Teacher Compensation Project is moving on two fronts: It is studying existing innovative pay plans and urging districts to put successful models in place. Odden calls this "stirring the pot."

The research portion of the project is focusing primarily on schoolwide pay incentives, such as those offered in Kentucky, Maryland, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina. Specifically, researchers are asking whether these programs motivate teachers to improve student achievement.

"Teachers and principals are very aware of the goals these systems have set for them," 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."

The project is preparing a series of "design seminars" to present research on school-performance incentives and other innovative pay plans and to offer advice to districts interested in such systems. Odden suggests, for example, that states avoid schemes that let entire school faculties decide collectively how to spend reward money. That's an approach Kentucky chose, and it has caused dissension in some schools, he says.

Carolyn Kelley, director of the project's research component, doubts the traditional salary schedule will disappear anytime soon. But "the time is really ripe" for experimentation, 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 to do that in an effective way."

The project's work has been embraced by the Teacher Union Reform Network, which last fall agreed to work with Odden and try some of his team's ideas. The Pew-funded network, known as TURN, is made up of the leaders of 20 local unions—half affiliated with the National Education Association and half with the American Federation of Teachers. A subgroup of seven union leaders—including those from Cincinnati; Memphis, Tennessee; and Rochester, New York—has pledged to try out various incentive-related alternatives to their current salary schedules.

Several of the districts already have compensation systems that pay teachers for specific knowledge and duties. Rochester, for example, rewards teachers for working in its professional-development academy, for accepting assignments in low-performing schools, and for national certification. Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester AFT affiliate, says working with Odden "will be enormously helpful as an antidote to the goofy but persistent clamoring for merit pay. Merit pay is not going to go away until there are some alternatives to it."

Ken Foster, a Memphis Education Association staff member assigned to work on teacher compensation, says teachers in his state probably will be wary of any attempts to change their compensation, thanks to Tennessee's failed experiment with career ladders and merit pay. Still, he's hoping that a handful of schools will step forward to test some of Odden's ideas, including school-performance awards. "The concern we have," Foster says, "is how do you get everybody in a particular school to buy into it?"

Although Odden has tried to work closely with union leaders from the start, his reputation until now has not been pro-union. And that, Adam Urbanski points out, "is all the more reason to expect credibility at the end of this process." Odden, nationally known for his work on school funding, says that his bias is toward improving schools and that compensation can help. But school improvement also requires certain "enabling conditions," he says, such as professional development, good leadership, and strategies and programs that work.

"I'm pro these ideas—neither pro-union nor pro-management," he says. "I want to get a bunch of really good ideas tried out in places that have a high level of trust between labor and management."

The Cincinnati school system is proving especially fertile ground for the Teacher Compensation Project. Odden is providing technical assistance to a district committee that is designing a school incentive program to be in place for the 1998-99 school year.

Rick Beck heads the bargaining team for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and co-chairs the design committee. The idea of rewarding faculties of effective schools is a touchy one for teachers, he says. "When people first hear the idea about school-incentive awards, the fairness issue is so overwhelming," he explains. "[Odden] has managed to balance what's happened between the district and the union without alienating either group. That's very tough to do because the package he comes to talk about could easily be looked at as an administrative issue—that they want to do wrong to teachers."

In Minnesota's Robbinsdale district, veteran teachers had similar fears. Last spring, union members voted to walk away from the work both sides had done on changing compensation. But district negotiators raised the issue again during new contract talks, and this fall both sides signed off on a plan to change the way new teachers are paid.

Tom Dooher, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, believes the new plan will address the public's desire to have teacher pay linked to skill and effort. What's more, he says, it should also address concerns of young teachers who see senior colleagues not working very hard but making twice as much money.

Under the plan, teachers must earn a master's degree within their first five years with the district. During the fifth year, each teacher must also compile a professional portfolio, which will be scored in eight categories. One category is national board certification, which carries the most weight—50 points. Other categories include evaluation by a supervisor (20 points), record of accomplishments (20 points), and knowledge of content areas (10 points). Teachers who earn a total of 100 points on their portfolios will receive $15,000 on top of their base pay for each of the following five years. At the end of that period, teachers will submit portfolios again. Teachers' base-pay level will continue to be negotiated by their union.

The substantial bonus, Dooher says, was necessary to get teachers to prepare good portfolios for evaluation. The district and union are still working out how to judge each portfolio category.

Some remain skeptical about the new system. "Many teachers feel like they are stretched to the limit," says Mary Jane Adams, an elementary teacher helping design the plan. "I want to be sure to advocate that teachers are held accountable for being in the classroom and working with children rather than trying to put together outside material to impress a committee."

Robbinsdale official Dave Baumann believes the plan is just what the district needs. "[It] responds to the overwhelming sense out in the community that there is no accountability for teachers, that raises are automatic, that you get money whether you're good, bad, or indifferent," Baumann says. "We'll be able to make some very clear statements about the quality of our staff through something like this. Raises stop unless you perform."

Educators in Douglas County, Colorado, also were keenly aware of the public's negative attitude toward teacher salaries when they designed their innovative compensation program. It is one of the best-known alternative pay plans and has been studied by Odden's team. In contrast to Robbinsdale—which Odden calls "a pretty radical program" given the substantial sums involved—the amount teachers in Douglas County can earn is fairly small.

In 1994, the district and the local union agreed to a schedule that no longer awards raises automatically. Instead, teachers receive a base salary and increments for continuing coursework in subjects related to their teaching. Only those rated proficient on their evaluations are eligible for the raises. In addition, teachers can earn $1,000 bonuses for compiling portfolios on certain aspects of their work. They can get skill-based pay for becoming competent in certain areas, such as learning specific software. They can secure modest amounts of "responsibility pay" for taking on additional tasks at school. And they can receive group incentive pay for meeting specific student learning goals.

"One of the beauties of the plan is that there are so many different facets," says Rob Weil, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. "People aren't pigeonholed into one way of doing things." Teachers can choose not to participate, or they can earn up to $3,000 in additional pay a year.

The new system seems to have helped bolster public confidence in the Douglas schools. In 1992, voters rejected a bond issue the district needed to build new classrooms. Last fall, they approved a similar measure.

—Ann Bradley

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