Teaching Profession Opinion

How to Fast-Track Rising Teacher Stars

By Allan R. Odden — June 08, 2009 6 min read
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Several school districts across the country are trying to change their teacher-salary structures in ways that would not only reward performance, but also allow effective teachers to reach top salary levels earlier in their careers, making teacher-compensation plans more in line with those in other occupations. Here are some concrete suggestions for accomplishing these appropriate goals.

First, there needs to be a distinction between base pay, or the monthly check, and variable pay, which is usually a bonus for improving organizational performance—student achievement, in the case of education. Base pay has to be predictable, something that teachers can count on as a basis for making family budgets. The dollars in base pay purchase the human assets individual teachers bring to the workplace—their instructional expertise.

Most of the teacher-compensation innovations to date have left the traditional single-salary schedule unchanged."

In most organizations, base pay does not pay for results. Improvement in results is typically rewarded with bonuses. Over the past two decades, education, too, has designed, funded, and implemented a variety of teaching bonuses awarded when a school meets some target for improved student performance. These are directed in most cases to all the teachers in a school, though sometimes also to individual teachers.

Education systems have struggled with how to change the base-pay teacher-salary structure. Except for isolated examples, such as the Denver school system, the Vaughn Charter School in Los Angeles, several Minnesota Q-Comp districts, and a few other school systems, the approach usually taken is to augment the traditional single-salary schedule with either school- or individual-teacher-based performance bonuses. Sometimes, the changes also include incentives for teachers in subject areas experiencing shortages, such as mathematics and science, and rewards for certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

In all these cases, however, the traditional salary schedule, which consumes the bulk of salary dollars, remains the same. It pays for years of experience and education units, so it is not performance-based. Few if any traditional schedules, moreover, have mechanisms for letting the most effective teachers move up the schedule faster, or for holding steady the salaries of teachers whose instructional practice does not improve. Thus, most of the teacher-compensation innovations to date have left the traditional single-salary schedule unchanged.

At the Consortium for Policy Research in Education’s Strategic Management of Human Capital program, where I am a co-director, we have argued that schools and their teachers need to be strategically managed around two metrics: measures of student performance and measures of teaching performance. Our rationale is that the core goal of a school system is student achievement, and the main route to that is instructional practice linked to a rigorous curriculum.

Education systems have measures of student performance, though most of them need improvement. But few districts have reliable and valid measures of teaching performance. Our group has studied districts that have created and now use such a measure, and the research shows not only that such an instrument is possible, but that its results can be reliable and valid (meaning that higher scores are linked to greater student learning gains)—and good enough to use for performance-management purposes. The development of robust measures of teaching performance remains a work in progress, however. It is the focus of several school reform efforts, including a new program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as our strategic-management group.

Assume that such a measure exists, and scores teacher performance on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the best. One could then construct a salary schedule that had four performance categories, each linked to scores on the teacher-performance measure. There could be “steps” within each performance category, but the top step would always be less than the first step of the next category, and step increases would be modest, say from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. The biggest salary increases—10 percent to 20 percent—would be given as teachers moved from category to category, thus providing the largest pay raises for broad performance improvements.

If the measure of teaching performance were determined every three years, a high-performing teacher would be able to move from “entry” to the top performance category in seven years. If the measure were determined every other year, a high-performing teacher could move into the top pay category by year five. Such a system would thus provide a way to front-load pay for the most effective teachers.

Moreover, any teacher whose instructional performance did not meet the standards of a higher performance level would be capped at the top step in his or her current performance category. Thus, pay levels for teachers would be linked to their demonstrated instructional ability. Assuming that the measure of teaching performance were valid, this schedule also would link pay levels to teachers’ effectiveness with students.

In short, all the requirements for new approaches to teacher pay that have been identified by advocates and critics alike would be met—and within a system that allowed all teachers to reach the top pay levels if their teaching performance merited it. The top steps in each performance category also could be fashioned with a condition that teachers produce student outcomes to a specified standard for that category.

The pay schedule could be enhanced with incentives to earn master’s degrees (in the area of licensure), or even doctoral degrees. Districts that did not want these elements could exclude them. Incentives aimed at subject-area shortages and national-board certification could be added to the basic schedule as well, which could be further strengthened with bonuses based on improving student performance, the aspect of teacher pay that has been the focus of most pay innovations to date.

The measure of teaching performance used to operate such a salary schedule, and the data collected to determine scores, could in turn be used to guide teacher development. This is an area of school management that becomes more critical as principals struggle to improve instructional practice to meet their primary goal of raising student achievement. Profiles of teacher performance, gained from the results of this teaching-assessment system, could be used by school leaders in building the skills of their teaching corps. The profiles also could inform induction programs for new teachers, ongoing mentoring, professional development, and career progression, as well as the pay system.

In short, to strategically manage teachers, education systems must have a measure that adequately gauges teachers’ performance in the classroom. From that would flow not only pay schedules that legitimately reward instructional expertise, but also better ways to increase teachers’ skills. Meanwhile, improvements in the traditional pay schedule could offer a way to authentically front-load salary for the most effective instructors, and perhaps keep the best young teachers in the profession.

The performance measure used to operate this new salary schedule would need to be linked to a rigorous set of standards and performance rubrics that were reliable across teachers and scorers. And it would have to have demonstrated validity, that is, with higher performance scores for teachers linked to higher levels of student-learning gains. Such measures are not produced by typical teacher-evaluation programs. But as we have found, they can be produced by standards-based teacher evaluation systems.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as How to Fast-Track Rising Teacher Stars


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