Teaching Profession Opinion

Five Things to Incentivize in Teacher Compensation Plans

By Nancy Flanagan — July 16, 2015 5 min read
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Many districts (and a lot of state legislatures) are now encouraging/experimenting with the idea of teacher compensation as a way to incentivize--to get better results by offering more (public) money for things they want (or think they want). They also want to spend less on teacher salaries, too--a lot less--but saying that out loud wouldn’t be politically correct, so they focus on what economists are telling them: money is a tool to generate outcomes.

So--does “differentiating” teacher pay (beyond the usual salary schedule) result in Better Teaching and More Learning? Can we use financial incentives to build the teacher force every school leader dreams of: bright stars relentlessly pursuing the all-important data, working 60 hours a week, cheerfully compliant?

Yes, I know. That’s not what administrators claim they want. But in the glossy rhetoric around Teach for America and similar temps programs, the message comes through, loud and clear: if you have shiny credentials--and we can work you into the ground for base pay plus the TFA tax--it doesn’t matter if we lose any investment we make in your professional development. Because-- we will never have to pay you very much when you leave after a couple of years.

Even the most stable and successful public schools, with across-the-board excellent programming built by veteran teachers, aren’t paying for experience any more. They can’t afford it. A revolving door of eager, disposable teachers doesn’t sound so bad. That market is beginning to dry up, however.

The outcome most desirable to career teachers, of course, is secure and just compensation--knowing how much money they can reasonably expect to make, what benefits accompany that compensation package, and under what conditions they could be terminated. Teachers see compensation as exactly that--getting paid (usually not very much) for competently doing a complex and important job. They don’t necessarily see it as a way to improve instruction, tweak student achievement data, or shift goals and priorities.

Districts bent on the idea they could transform student outcomes through teacher pay have had, at best, mixed success in doing so. Even when the goals of using a differentiated pay system sound good--who doesn’t want to improving student learning?--the metrics used to identify success are murky and sometimes counterproductive. Incentive mechanisms are insulting, too--did they think more money would make me try harder? How am I supposed to feel about getting a bonus when the money isn’t available to special education or art teachers?

So what teacher behaviors and skillsets are worth aiming for, collectively--and what incentives might work? I can think of five things:

1. Ongoing accrual of pedagogical skills and content knowledge. You’re never done learning to be a better teacher. There’s always a new strategy, new materials, new challenges in the disciplinary field. Any teacher who thinks they’re done building a quality practice does need a serious motivational re-start. An incentive, if you will.

2. Experience and persistence. The research is clear. Fifth year teachers are better than first year teachers. And a stable faculty learns to build important things together: Curriculum. Workable building policies and procedures. Common assessments. Shared resources and knowledge. Mentoring for newbies. None of this happens unless longevity is desirable and incentivized, and churn discouraged.

Let me pause here and note that these two goals were precisely what the developers of the single salary schedule had in mind: Spur teachers to get more education, and entice them to stick around so they won’t need to constantly be replaced. Every district that wants to tamper with the single salary schedule would do well to remember that--it was built on reasonable aspirations, even if the end results, after six decades or so, are as mixed as those of more recent differentiated pay schemes.

The next three worth-encouraging traits are harder to identify and measure, but represent, IMO, things that could be transformative to public education, IF we weren’t obsessed with competitive metrics:

3. Innovation. What would happen if every school district operated like an idea engine? If every teacher and support staff member were invited to share their best three ideas about improving operations and outcomes, every year? And the most useful of these were recognized and initiated? If creativity were released and publicly rewarded?

4. Professionalism. What if we paid teachers more for professional tasks: mentoring, curriculum-writing, leading professional learning, selecting instructional materials, rotating through administrative roles, organizing and supervising student activities, serving as a special consultant in an area of expertise? What if we put more control over their own work into their hands?

5. Diversity. It would be of great value to our students for districts to actively pursue building a staff that represents the world we live in. It’s good for students of color to be taught by minority teachers--they learn more, to begin with--but it’s also important for white students to be taught by minority teachers. In a country with where half our students are non-white, encouraging a broad and deep mix of faces in front of the classroom should be a future-focused and productive priority.

Do we tweak teacher pay to pursue these goals? Will more money produce a better teacher?

If you’re talking about considerably more competitive base pay--sure. It’s clear that many promising teachers leave the field because they can no longer afford to do the job they love. But how do you incentivize the total package: the teacher who is in it for the long haul, dedicated to change and growth, willing to take on non-instructional duties and step out their demographic comfort zone?

It has to do with respect and autonomy. Recognition of complex work, well done. Fair treatment. Regular acknowledgment that teachers’ work is critical and meaningful in a healthy community. Compensation for things that matter (note: test scores don’t matter)--like taking on a tough school re-organization task, or acting as role model for kids who need one.

Compensation is not synonymous with money. Rewards are not always tangible. And some of the things that school districts want most in their teachers cannot be purchased or leveraged by a monetary bonus.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.