Recruitment & Retention

Baltimore’s Teacher-Pay Experiment Gains Foothold

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 25, 2014 9 min read
Rhea Espedido, seated in a hallway of Liberty Elementary School, is one of a handful of “lead” teachers in the Baltimore district. Her new position and higher salary come as part of the district’s four-year effort to transform the traditional teacher-pay schedule.
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Rhea Espedido has made a habit of going above and beyond in her Baltimore school, devising a reading-intervention program to decrease special education referrals, for instance. But this school year is the first time she’ll be rewarded for it.

When students return to Liberty Elementary, she’ll be teaching fewer classes, using the additional time to coach other teachers on reading and writing instruction—and earning close to six figures for her efforts.

Ms. Espedido is one of just a handful of “lead” teachers, a new position that marks the final piece of Baltimore’s four-year effort to transform the traditional teacher-pay schedule into one emphasizing professional accomplishments over credentials and seniority. Few of the nation’s 14,000 school districts have ever attempted the feat, and even fewer have crafted such a revision hand in hand with their teachers’ unions.

“I think this pathway really changed the mindset of the teaching force. It’s really all about making yourself better, and then you get rewarded,” Ms. Espedido said. “I felt so good that people think about recognizing what we do, and are thanking us.”

Begun through a 2010 collective bargaining agreement, the pay overhaul is also a survivor, having made it early this year through a second round of contract negotiations.

But Baltimore teachers’ varied reactions to the system exemplifies one of the truisms of compensation reform: Devising an alternative means changing a major incentive at work in school systems. And not everyone will be pleased with the results.

Independent researchers add that there’s as yet little hard evidence to show that Baltimore’s revamped pay structure has improved academics or encouraged the best teachers to stay. And this fall, the district is experiencing a major

leadership transition, complete with a new CEO and the departure of interim CEO Tisha Edwards, who helped the system leap from paper contract into reality.

Still, for proponents, the system offers one important benefit over its predecessor: more options for the ambitious teacher.

“It takes away the predictability of when you’re going to get this or that [raise], but it really allows the individual to take control and lead where they want to go in their professional growth,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, the 85,000-student district’s achievement and accountability officer.

Articulating a Vision

The Professional Practices and Student Learning Program, as the district’s pay system is known, all but dispenses with increases for longevity and for credentials held, the two factors that determine teacher pay in most U.S. school systems. Instead, the predominant element is performance. Baltimore teachers earn incremental pay boosts each time they compile 12 “achievement units” or AUs. The quickest way to do so is by getting top teacher-evaluation scores.

Larger pay increases occur after promotion to the “model” or “lead” pathway, a competitive process partly vetted by other teachers.

District- and union-staffed panels spent more than two years determining which activities should count towards pay, and creating the rules for the promotions, a task all parties agree proved stressful and bewildering at times.

“At the time we negotiated this, it was groundbreaking. We were pioneers. I still think it’s the future of teacher compensation,” said Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who sat on the joint oversight committee implementing the contract. “But there was no one for us to turn to for help, nobody who was doing it prior to us.”

Indeed, a case study by Harvard University scholars called the panels’ work “laborious, complicated, and uncertain,” especially as it wrestled with the minutia of the contract: How many senior teachers should be grandfathered onto the model pathway? (About 540.) Should teachers be observed before being promoted to model status? (Yes, by videotape.) Would teachers earning model status keep it in definitely? (No, they must re-earn it every five years.)

Credit Options

In the end, the panels crafted a menu of options for earning credits. Rank-and-file teachers appear to have different opinions of the still-evolving menu. On the one hand, the opportunities for earning credits through professional development are diverse. On the other hand, some eligible activities fall into problems of the square-peg, round-hole variety.

For instance, under one option, teachers can submit some of their after-hours duties for AU credit, but they must document the connections to student learning. That can be a stretch for teachers who spend hours managing the pep squad rather than a more academically oriented club, like the debate team.

Rhea Espedido recently advanced to become a “lead” teacher at Liberty Elementary School in Baltimore. The change was made possible by an overhaul of the teacher-pay schedule developed jointly by the local district and the Baltimore Teachers Union.

“Clubs and after-school activities get kids involved in schools; it keeps them off the street,” said Carla McCoy, a 30-year veteran English teacher. “You’re thinking about giving them something positive to do after school and enriching their skills strategically. You don’t always think about how it’s helping their achievement, because those activities were never meant to measure achievement.”

Conversely, some wonder if the rules are too lax. Some administrators treat AUs as a kind of scrip currency given in the place of monetary stipends, rather than a reward for improvement in teaching or learning, worries Julie Oxenhandler, a middle school math teacher.

Last year, she received achievement units for participating in coaching with a community group that partners with the city, leading a teacher-support group, and writing curriculum.

“Most of the AUs are coming from extra tasks I’ve done for the city and have nothing to do with areas for improvement in my evaluation,” Ms. Oxenhandler said.

Those tensions are not unexpected, say experts who have studied alternative pay systems.

“There’s no one best way to structure these systems,” said Matthew G. Springer, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “And there’s a tremendous variety of teachers who have different perspectives on what should be important in them.”

Teacher Responses

Baltimore teachers do appear to agree on one point: Teachers now must take more ownership over their performance and their movement on the scale.

District data back up the notion that automatic pay increases are a thing of the past. In 2011-12, 55 percent of certified staff moved up at least one interval on the pay scale. That figure has increased as teachers have adjusted to the system, rising to 78 percent in 2013-14.

The shift has been a boon to some, notes Ms. English of the teachers’ union. It’s possible for an ambitious teacher to make a significantly higher salary much earlier in his or her career.

“If I wanted to move pathways and make more, I don’t even have to spend five years, or get a master’s degree, or go back to school,” said Rachel Nash, a high school English teacher. “People have the potential to make $86,000 when they’re 24 years old.”

But, Ms. Nash added, veteran teachers accustomed to the predictable increases under the old pay system are more likely to view earning AUs as just so much hoop-jumping.

“For people who don’t mind looking for opportunities and doing a bunch of different things, this new system is manageable,” Ms. Oxenhandler agreed. “But if I had a lot of outside responsibilities or a family to take care of, I might not have time to give up four Saturdays a month to do a professional-development cycle.”

A new wrinkle has some teachers questioning whether raises will be harder to earn in the fall. In June, the district announced that it was raising the cutoff score for the highest rating on its teacher-evaluation system, which is worth a full 12 AUs. That was done partly in response to a change in state requirements governing teacher evaluation, district officials said. But for teachers, it’s nerve-wracking.

“There are so many shifts going on at once, and they all seem to be increasing rigor,” said Ms. Nash, pointing to the additional demands of the Common Core State Standards. “I think if they’d raised the score at the beginning of the year, people would have been able to have these conversations as they happened.”

Leader Opportunities

Some of the pay system’s other features are noteworthy because of the lessons they offer.

Nationally, the debate about measuring teaching effectiveness has been controversial. But the Baltimore system puts part of the process into the hands of teachers themselves.

Ms. McCoy, a model teacher, sits on the teacher peer-review panel that blind-reviews applications for movement to the model pathway. Using guidelines written by the governing panel, she examines lesson plans, student work samples, and a recording of each teacher’s instruction. It can take up to three hours to score one portfolio.

“Teachers are being rated by teachers who are actively working in the schools—not by people who are so removed from education,” Ms. McCoy said. “We work side by side with these teachers; we just don’t know who they are.”

So far, the district and union have insisted on a high bar for the promotion. The success rate for applicants in each of the six review cycles held to date has never been higher than 50 percent.

“Those are promotional opportunities. We wanted to set a standard for what excellent teaching and learning can be in our district,” Ms. Bell-Ellwanger said.

The district’s top brass has high hopes for the new class of lead teachers who will be freed up to help implement the common core and devise interventions for students struggling academically.

Not all of the 48 lead teachers selected last spring will actually get to hold those jobs, though, because principals must budget for them, establish roles and expectations for them, and agree to give them three-quarters release time from some teaching duties. About 15 lead teachers have placements so far.

The differing norms of the schools seem to play a role. Ms. Espedido’s school has a strong culture of teacher leadership and her principal eagerly interviewed teachers for the spot. Other principals appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Eyeing Results

The Baltimore story is playing out as national interest in career ladders for teachers surges. The 1.1 million-student New York City district inked a teacher contract this year that eyes advanced roles for teachers not unlike Baltimore’s.

Career ladders have been tried with mixed success for decades, with one challenge being a lack of firm evidence that they reliably identify and help spread the expertise of the best teachers.

Baltimore officials said that, based on internal analyses, the peer-review process for moving to the model pathway does appear to identify teachers who are better at boosting student learning. But there isn’t any external research yet on the system’s effects.

“I would be interested in knowing whether this system is helping to retain good people. Are they the ones saying, ‘We like this, we’re happy with this?’ Are they staying longer?” said Anthony Milanowski, a senior study director at Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based research group, who has studied teacher-pay systems. “I’d certainly also want to know whether this is having any impact on recruitment.”

And because the system’s overall goal is to improve instruction, he reasoned, the district should track and analyze promising patterns—for instance, whether schools with many model or lead teachers are improving at faster rates than other schools.

For now, the best hope of such studies remains in ensuring the system lasts long enough to warrant them. And Ms. Espedido and the other new lead teachers in Baltimore are primed to be its strongest ambassadors.

“We want to meet and talk about our roles and our successes, and to help each other and also be facilitators of trainings for Baltimore teachers,” she said. “We want to do more than just being in our schools; as the first cohort of lead teachers, we really want to be making a difference.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2014 edition of Education Week as Baltimore’s Pay Experiment Gains Foothold


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