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Report Urges Experimentation With Teacher-Pay Schemes

By Bess Keller — June 05, 2002 3 min read

New forms of teacher compensation and higher salaries are locked together in the quest for an improved teacher corps and higher student achievement, asserts a report released last week by the Progressive Policy Institute.

Read the report, “Better Pay for Better Teaching: Making Teacher Compensation Pay Off in an Age of Accountability,” from the Progressive Policy Institute. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The report calls for widespread experimentation with teacher-pay systems, especially ones that provide flexibility at the school level. Experimentation and follow-up documentation are critical, says author Bryan C. Hassel, because nobody yet knows much about “what works” in the area of teacher compensation.

It’s clear, though, that the traditional system of paying teachers based on years of service and level of education they have attained is outmoded, argues Mr. Hassel, a co-director of Public Impact, an educational consulting firm in Charlotte, N.C. With pressures growing on schools to help students achieve more academically and a new federal law requiring a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by 2005, leaders can ill afford to squander pay incentives, he says.

Although increased salaries are important, alone they will not go far enough in attracting and keeping teachers, Mr. Hassel believes. And, he writes, they do little to nothing to induce great teachers to take on tough assignments or encourage teachers in general to improve their classroom practice. Worst of all, he maintains, across-the-board increases perpetuate a system that encourages some bad teachers to stay put.

When pay is tied to school improvement goals, then the public will back increases, Mr. Hassel’s report says.

Give Some, Get Some

“That’s the bargain for teachers,” Mr. Hassel concluded at a forum held here last week to launch the study. “Better pay, but also a better pay system.”

The Progressive Policy Institute—a think tank affiliated with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party—advocates academic accountability, high academic standards, and increased federal funding for education, especially targeted to needy schools. The report was underwritten by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

The report outlines three types of alternatives to the prevailing system of paying teachers for experience and education:

  • Pay for knowledge and skills, such as the system used in the Douglas County, Colo., schools and the proposal recently voted down by Cincinnati teachers. (“Cincinnati Teachers Rebuff Performance Pay,” May 29, 2002.)
  • Differential pay to attract teachers to the high-poverty, low-performance schools where few want to teach, or to lure teachers from careers open to them because of their rare expertise. Examples include Utah’s signing bonuses for new mathematics and science teachers.
  • Pay for performance, such as North Carolina provides when a school meets “expected” or “exemplary” targets of test- score increases over a year.

The paper also calls for systems that allow schools, rather than districts or states, to have the upper hand in determining the bases for which teachers are paid.

A final principle that should guide design of compensation systems, according to the report, is no reduction in the current salaries of teachers to finance the changes.

‘Fighting Words’

In the discussion following the report’s presentation, one scholar said the paper was more incendiary than it might first appear from its mild formulations, because it recommends that the design of compensation systems involve “an intense focus on results.”

“Those are fighting words in some circles,” said Jane Hannaway, a sociologist who directs the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

Many teachers have been leery of being judged by their students’ achievement because they believe they have little control over how students do. Their unions have fended off attempts to link pay to student test achievement.

In response to a question that cited the National Education Association’s official stance opposing pay plans based on student-achievement gains, Brad Jupp, a teacher in the Denver schools, said teachers in local unions did not necessarily agree. While advocates for pay-system changes used to argue in “top-down, moralistic terms,” Mr. Jupp said, these days they are more likely to sound the themes of experimentation with rigorous evaluation and commitment to keeping current salaries from dropping.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Report Urges Experimentation With Teacher-Pay Schemes