A few years ago, an excellent young teacher asked a question I could not answer. Nodding down the hall at a distant figure, she wondered: “Why do I get the same pay as Ms. Early?”
Her real name is not “Early,” but I always think of her that way, because she effectively took “early retirement” years ago. Unfortunately, she’s still a member of our faculty at Brighton, a high-poverty K-8 school on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, where I’ve served as the school-improvement coach since completing my term as National Teacher of the Year in 2003.
As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.
During my NTOY experience, I spoke many times about my belief that all children deserve—and must have—quality schools staffed by well-prepared teachers who know how to help them succeed. When my NTOY year ended, the inequities in the quality of education in my own state drew me to Brighton, which has been ranked as one of the lowest performing schools in Alabama for many years.
Let me tell you something about the young teacher who found herself questioning our compensation system. She put herself through college by working in retail, and she continues to work some nights and weekends to make ends meet. She has taught at our school for five years, and her students have consistently achieved at high levels by every available measure. She spends many extra hours preparing for her class and schedules after-school meetings with our reading coach to assure herself she is on target with each child. She has also served as the supervising teacher for two student-teachers, whom she recruited to our faculty and mentored without financial reward during their first year of teaching.
Meanwhile, Ms. Early spends little or no time in preparing for her class or contributing to the improvement of our school. Her students consistently achieve at very low levels, and she is a constant source of concern for our faculty, administration, and school district.
Thinking back to that hallway conversation three years ago, I think the young teacher asked me a very valid question. In my opinion, it was a discussion that was long overdue. Perhaps if the education and policy communities had been more proactive about rewarding teachers for outstanding performance, we would not see half of the nation’s new teachers leaving the profession within five years.
When the opportunity came in late 2005 to join in just such a discussion with 18 outstanding teachers from across the United States, I eagerly said yes. For the past year, our TeacherSolutions team, supported by the Center for Teaching Quality and the Teacher Leaders Network, has considered how teachers might design a compensation system that could accelerate both teaching quality and student achievement.
Our best thinking is captured in the newly released study, “Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System That Students Deserve.” This is not your typical “think tank” report on education policy. It showcases the authentic voices of educators who understand how schools work—teachers who have been successful with every kind of student, in every kind of setting. We do not represent any professional organization or political party. Our diverse membership spans across all grades and content areas and includes republicans, democrats and independents; union and nonunion teachers; and teachers who work in school systems with and without collective bargaining.
Our aim has not been to describe a performance-pay plan that can be quickly unpacked and installed in each and every school district in America. We understand these plans must be tailored to local conditions, with teachers as full partners in the process. Our goal is to encourage—even provoke—a deep conversation about quality teaching and how a variegated pay system could support the development of teaching as a profession.
We identify four areas where we believe teachers should be able to earn additional compensation. We propose that new pay plans reward teachers who:
• help students learn more;
• develop and use new knowledge and skills;
• fulfill special needs in the local labor market; or
• provide school and community leadership for student success.
We make it clear that the first step in building a new incentives-driven compensation system for teachers is to get the base-pay system right. But we cannot stop there. We have to provide more for those teachers who continually go above and beyond to ensure high academic gains. We have to provide rewards for teachers who step out and become leaders in their schools. We need incentives that support teachers who work in teams to help students achieve more, or who reach out to the community beyond the school to increase support for student learning.
Working in a high-needs school has created for me a never-ending sense of urgency for improved student achievement. I have so wished teachers had been respected partners during the policy debates over No Child Left Behind, long before it became a law. I know how much better it could have been written with teacher input. We simply cannot let another opportunity to improve our profession pass us by.
Our TeacherSolutions recommendations are nuanced and not easily summarized, and I encourage you to download the report and executive summary and devote an hour of your time to reading and reflecting on the ideas we propose. Believe me, I know what an hour of teachers’ time is worth. But I am convinced this issue will not go away (just look at the “pro comp” debates now raging in Florida and Texas). You may not agree with us, and that’s okay. We just hope you will do your professional homework and join the debate.
This issue is too important for us to rely on others to “represent” our interests. We must be fully prepared to share our own understandings and unique insights. I truly believe that, together, we can design a system that students and teachers deserve.
One day soon I want to be able to answer the young teacher in my school with these words: “Yes, you are going to be compensated for your outstanding efforts. And you will have many more opportunities as your career progresses. So stay with us. Teaching is worthy of your talents, your intellect, and your desire to serve. We need professionals like you, and you will be rewarded for flying high.”