We know that effective teaching is the single most important in-school factor for improving student achievement. It follows that attracting and retaining excellent teachers will improve district performance. How will your district attract these high performers and get them to sign on ... and stay on? By raising teacher salaries? It’s not that simple.
Based on our work with large urban school districts and research on teacher and employee motivation, we believe one key lies in formulating and communicating a clear and compelling “value proposition.” A value proposition is the complete set of offerings and experiences provided by the employer to the employee. An effective value proposition reflects the needs of both employer and employee: the employer’s need to attract and retain employees with the right skills and knowledge, and the employees’ need for rewards and working conditions that motivate and engage them to do their best work.
While salary and benefits are important to all employees, the value proposition doesn’t stop there. It also encompasses professional growth and career opportunities, work-life-balance structures, professional recognition, and working conditions, including quality of leadership, opportunity for teamwork, student motivation and discipline, and demands and structure of the job.
While the private sector has embraced this concept (often calling it “total rewards”), to date it has been a rarity in the public sector, especially in education. Instead, most school systems have instead relied heavily on the intrinsic value of the teaching mission, rarely looking beyond salary and benefits. Even then, they have failed to communicate the totality of what is offered, particularly with respect to benefits such as health, retirement, and fringe.
A comprehensive value proposition is well suited to teaching, a profession that values growth, career opportunities, and working conditions that nurture both."
A comprehensive value proposition is well suited to teaching, a profession that values growth, career opportunities, and working conditions that nurture both. Within their limited budgets, school systems must perform a delicate balancing act between professional needs and competitive compensation. A value approach makes this balance transparent, clearly communicating the full investment in teachers’ careers.
How can systems break from tradition and define and communicate a compelling value proposition that expands the pool of high-performing applicants? The following is a five-step road map to doing just that. It requires a dramatic change in perspective and deliberate shifts in investments to better meet district needs, while considering teacher priorities.
• Flip the Value. The place to begin is at the end, by defining who the “right” candidates are. Most districts have constructed their value propositions the opposite way, focusing on what they will give without clearly defining what they want in return. This has resulted in a compensation and job structure that doesn’t reliably produce the teachers they need. Districts must begin with a clear description of their instructional objectives. Only then can they define the type and quality of teachers they seek to hire, as well as bring about the specific job conditions and supports that nurture professional growth in teachers.
•Expand and Assess. School systems must broaden their perspective beyond salary and benefits. We know from surveys that working conditions are critical to teacher job satisfaction, and thus retention. Also, a narrow definition of the value proposition makes it difficult to compete with the private sector for highly qualified candidates, making it appear as though districts have less to offer. School systems rarely consider working conditions a core component of their teaching value proposition. Yet evidence suggests that supportive principals, collaborative working conditions, and professional empowerment are particularly important for high-performing teachers. The most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which reported teacher satisfaction at its lowest level in 25 years, found higher job satisfaction among teachers who felt their jobs were secure, were valued by the community, and offered opportunities for collaboration and teaming. (We acknowledge that some observers have disputed the finding of a 25-year low in satisfaction.)
Since school systems compete with the private sector for the same talent, communicating the entire value proposition is essential. Districts often undercommunicate the value of pensions and benefits, though these frequently put them at a competitive advantage relative to private-sector employers. Analyzing the entire value proposition—compensation, benefits, recognition, career-development opportunities, and working conditions—enables districts to emphasize (and adjust, if appropriate) those pieces that may lack high monetary value but yield great satisfaction in terms of mission, work-life balance, or individual growth.
• Customize. No two districts are identical—and their value propositions shouldn’t be either. The factors affecting a district’s unique situation include legal guidelines on what must be or cannot be offered, resource constraints, regulatory and contractual constraints, and the local context. For example, a district may have a temporary shortage of bilingual teachers and choose to offer financial incentives for this category of teacher. The value proposition is also shaped by strategic priorities and an understanding of the preferences of targeted employees. Employees may be willing to trade certain things to maximize those work benefits they prioritize, allowing a district to provide more value for the same cost.
• Prioritize. Given public-revenue realities, districts must prioritize what to fund in order to create a financially sustainable value proposition. This involves careful consideration of their unique needs, as well as the student impact and cost of each value element. Understanding the entire cost of what they’re offering teachers helps districts align scarce financial resources with educational priorities. For example, a small salary increase for all teachers may be better invested in other areas, such as teacher coaching or freeing teacher time for collaboration.
Of course, we can’t ignore salary and benefits. Getting compensation right is crucial for attracting, retaining, and motivating high-performing employees. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink suggests: “Effective organizations compensate people in amounts and in ways that allow individuals to mostly forget about compensation and instead focus on the work itself.” Not getting it right, he says, keeps compensation front and center and inhibits creativity, ultimately unraveling performance.
• Communicate. For a district’s value proposition to drive success in attracting, retaining, and motivating high-performing employees, it must be understandable, accessible, and updated. Prospective or current employees must be able to compare the value proposition and its components with those of competing employers. This requires districts to cost out individual components in ways they have not done previously, and to collect and provide comparison information on competitors, if available. Ensure that comparisons are apples to apples. For example, when reporting salary scales, include a scenario that adjusts for required hours worked, which often differs significantly by district.
For the value proposition to be an effective human-resource-management tool, it must be open to adaptation as circumstances regarding district priorities, teacher preferences, and available revenues change. It must be kept current, with updated information, readily available to all and as personalized as possible for each employee.
As school systems rethink their offerings, they must not ignore their most valuable asset: the opportunity to affect, improve, and enrich the lives of children and young adults. This intrinsic characteristic is a priceless asset in attracting, retaining, and motivating a high-performing teaching force. That said, it is no longer sufficient for systems to rely solely on the intrinsic nature of the profession to achieve their goals. A well-rounded, carefully constructed value proposition can be an effective tool to attract the teaching force our demanding education outcomes require.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Want Effective Teachers?