Teaching Profession

Districts Try Out Revamped Teacher-Pay Systems

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 09, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of short observations a teacher in Harrison School District Two can receive each year. It is 16.

A handful of districts, some with the approval of their local teachers’ unions, are experimenting with alternatives to the fundamental components that govern teachers’ base-pay raises.

Ranging from a long-standing plan in Eagle County, Colo., to a contract ratified earlier this year by teachers in the Pittsburgh district, the systems tie raises more closely to classroom evaluations, rather than granting automatic increases for each year of service or the completion of an advanced degree.

The moves have generated some strife as well. Eagle County officials overhauled their plan recently, and teachers in the 82,000-student Baltimore school system last month rejected a tentative contract that would have codified the changes to their pay system. This month, the city’s teaching corps will weigh whether to accept a revised version.

While it is probably too soon to determine whether such experimentation is indicative of a trend, other districts, such as Hillsborough County, Fla., have devised plans to move in a similar direction. And both publicly and privately financed grants, such as those from the Teacher Incentive Fund, the Race to the Top initiative, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching are prodding district action.

Some scholars of teacher compensation welcome the experimentation as a chance to try out various alternatives for structuring pay in ways that better suit district needs.

“There are no road maps out there, so districts have to develop their own systems,” said Michael Podgursky, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri, in Columbia. “There’s no reason to believe that one size fits all. The plans will probably adapt to the labor markets and circumstances of the places they’re operating in, and the kinds of people they’re attracting.”

Two Goals

Districts both small and large, with and without strong teachers’ unions and with private or public dollars, are re-envisioning pay plans. Many of the details differ, including whether the plans do away with either “step” increases for years of service, “lane” increases for holding advanced degrees, or some combination of the two.

But several common features unite the compensation efforts: Unlike bonus programs that are merely added atop the existing pay structure, the initiatives fundamentally rework the compensation system, by tying some salary increases to evaluations.

First instituted in the 1920s, the step-and-lane salary schedule increased in popularity as teachers’ unions gained collective bargaining rights and pushed for pay systems that prevented favoritism by administrators or discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or position. A past decade of research analyzing longitudinal student-achievement data has found little alignment between student learning and the salient features of such a salary schedule, which is used in nearly all the nation’s 15,000 districts.

Salary schedules grant annual raises and can go on for dozens of years, but such research has found that most teachers become maximally effective in their first three to five years on the job. And with only a few exceptions, research indicates that teachers who hold advanced degrees are generally not more effective than those without the credentials.

Shifting Focus

At least four districts are transitioning to pay systems based heavily on teacher- evaluation results.

Instituted: Pending vote
Optional for Veterans: No
Rewards Years of Service (Steps?) No
Rewards Degree Credits (lanes)? Minimally
Career Ladder? Yes
Plan Description: Teachers receive incremental salary boosts for earning 12 “achievement units” by getting good evaluations, taking on additional roles, and participating in professional development. Moving to a substantially higher salary band requires satisfying a formal review by a peer committee.

Instituted: 2001; revisions in 2008
Optional for Veterans: No
Rewards Years of Service (Steps?) No
Rewards Degree Credits (lanes)? Yes
Career Ladder? Yes
Plan Description: Teachers’ raises are determined as up to 4 percent of salary, based on results from their annual evaluation. They can also earn one-time bonuses worth another 4 percent of salary based on an index of student-achievement growth, and stipends for working in hard-to-staff schools.

Instituted: 2010-11
Optional for Veterans: No
Rewards Years of Service (Steps?) No
Rewards Degree Credits (lanes)? No*
Career Ladder? No
Plan Description: Teachers are placed in one of several compensation tiers. Advancement to a higher salary band requires a combination of high performance on evaluations and evidence of improving student achievement.

Instituted: 2010-11
Optional for Veterans: Yes
Rewards Years of Service (Steps?) Yes
Rewards Degree Credits (lanes)? No
Career Ladder? Yes
Plan Description: Teachers continue to earn incremental increases each year, but must satisfy a formal review tied to teacher evaluation to advanced to a substantially higher pay tier.

*Degrees are considered for advancement to the highest pay levels.
SOURCE: Education Week

Forthcoming research by Stanford University economist Eric A. Hanushek concludes that, in 2008, 9.5 percent of teachers’ total salaries was devoted to paying them for obtaining advanced degrees, and 27 percent for accumulated experience past the second year of teaching.

The goals of the new compensation plans are twofold: to better align those dollars with goals for student achievement, and to provide help for teachers to achieve the goals.

Each of the experimenting districts has put a focus on teacher evaluation at the heart of its revamped pay system. In Harrison School District Two, near Colorado Springs, Colo., teachers get as many as 16, 15-minute classroom checks on their teaching performance a year, in addition to longer, more formal ones. Results from the evaluations factor into annual pay decisions. (“Colo. District Scraps Traditional Teacher-Pay Schedule,” May 12, 2010.)

Impact on Students

Eagle County’s evaluations are the basis for a raise of up to 4 percent annually, determined by observations by “mentor” and “master” teachers, in addition to principals, who provide feedback aligned with the evaluation framework. The system also reserves times for teachers to meet weekly to discuss instructional goals.

The plan “is less about reforming a compensation system and more about what are the things we need to do to have a high-quality, highly effective teacher in every classroom,” said Traci Wodlinger, the director of professional development for the Colorado district. “It is a means to an end, not an end.”is a means to an end, not an end.”

The system is a modified version of the Teacher Advancement Program, a comprehensive school reform approach run by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Details on how teacher evaluation will connect to pay remain to be ironed out in two districts. In the 28,000-student Pittsburgh district, teachers will continue to get small increases annually, but major boosts will be granted only after satisfying a teaching-practice review at the tenure year and each third year thereafter that incorporates information from the evaluation system, to be set up this winter. (“Pittsburgh Teacher Pact Tests 3 New Pay Elements,” June 18, 2010.)

“We recognized that we have to take a look at student achievement and the impact of the teacher on student achievement,” said John Tarka, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

‘Achievement Units’

Teachers in Baltimore will vote Nov. 17 on the tweaked version of a tentative collective bargaining pact that would de-emphasize both the accumulation of degrees and years of service.

Under the tentative agreement, teachers would earn pay increases by collecting enough “achievement units” to move to a higher pay interval. Credit earned toward advanced degrees would be worth only one unit, while a satisfactory evaluation would be worth nine and a superior one, 12. The most-effective teachers could see annual increases, but the raises would not come automatically.

The Baltimore teachers could also qualify for promotions—the equivalent of lane increases—only by passing an in-depth review of their teaching, conducted partly by other teachers.

Both the Pittsburgh and Baltimore plans have attracted national attention because they were advanced as part of a collective bargaining agreement. They suggest that collective bargaining can serve as a vehicle for rather than an obstacle to reform proposals, an idea advanced by the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. The AFT is the parent union of affiliates representing teachers in both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The new pay systems also offer insights into the challenges that await districts considering similar reforms.

Devilish Details

Eagle County’s plan, launched in 2001, has experienced its share of setbacks, including difficulties adopting the model in high schools and a major turnover in district-level staff members in 2007. At one point, officials organized a committee of community members, district employees, and teachers’ association staff members to decide whether to revert to a traditional salary schedule.

But “the vote was unanimous to keep moving forward, to not go back to a lockstep salary schedule, and not go back to independent teacher practice,” Ms. Wodlinger recalled.

The committee ultimately oversaw a number of changes. It dropped a system of rewarding individual teachers based on student test scores, after difficulties arose in making the links. And the district also restored the master’s-degree pay premium, for reasons as much philosophical as practical.

“It’s really a challenge to say you don’t value master’s degrees when you’re in the education field,” said Mike Gass, the district’s executive director of student services and innovative programs.

Individual accountability in the 11,000-student Harrison district is balanced by choices. There, teachers have the option of meeting the individual-achievement component of the evaluation in different ways, using both student assessments and projects graded according to specified guidelines.

Officials in both districts have spent much time revising and updating the evaluation frameworks. In Eagle County, a committee meets biennially to make the framework’s targets more “actionable” for teachers, Ms. Wodlinger said.

In Pittsburgh, the union will push to include measures of teacher effectiveness beyond standardized-test scores, such as reviews of student work, in the teacher-evaluation framework, the PFT’s Mr. Tarka said.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore contract hints at the importance of understanding how fast a new pay plan can be devised while maintaining teacher support. Despite being endorsed by the Baltimore Teachers Union, rank-and-file teachers voted down an initial proposal last month. The district and the union have since made only minor revisions to the proposal. Some Baltimore teachers say they are still wary about the lack of detail on such aspects as how evaluations will be made fair and reliable.

“All the negotiations in terms of our livelihood was done by people it’s not going to affect financially, without any real input by the vast majority of teachers,” contended Peter French, a union building representative at a charter school in northeast Baltimore.

The Pittsburgh and Baltimore examples make an intriguing contrast. Current teachers in Pittsburgh get a choice on whether to opt into the new system, which is mandatory only for new hires, while those in Baltimore would not have a choice.

The opt-in, Mr. Tarka said, was carefully thought out. The plan “is not being imposed on anyone. Someone who becomes a teacher in Pittsburgh knows there’s an opportunity to make considerably more money here, but they have considerable expectations for student growth,” he said. “No question—not only was it an educational strategy, it was also a collective bargaining strategy.”

BTU officials have stepped up their outreach about the Baltimore contract, by hosting meetings to inform building representatives about its features and including more explanatory language in the version sent to members.

District officials in Baltimore are refraining from commenting on the new contract while the teaching force votes.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Districts Refashion Teacher Base Pay


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