Teaching Profession

Tight Budgets Prompt More Talk Than Action on Teacher-Pay Plans

By Bess Keller — November 30, 2004 8 min read
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The notion that teachers should be paid for how well they’re doing their jobs, and not for how many years they’ve been in them, is whipping up plenty of talk in statehouses and at policy get-togethers.

But action may have to wait until state and local coffers begin filling again.

While it’s not a new concept, the interest in what is commonly called “performance pay” continues to build. High-profile business leaders, such as the former head of IBM, and governors or state school boards in at least three states are calling for alternatives to the largely uniform way most teachers are paid.

“There’s a shift in conversation away from treating us like some kind of exotic bird,” said Brad Jupp, the teachers’ union activist who led Denver educators last spring to approve an alternative pay plan. “Folks are very interested in what we are doing.”

At the same time, though, revenue limits have strangled more than a few programs in the past several years. A California effort to pay individual teachers bonuses as high as $20,000 for high-octane improvement in their students’ test scores screeched to a halt. An Iowa plan to step teachers up in salary as they climbed the rungs of a proficiency ladder never took off. And Florida’s two attempts to put teachers’ salaries on more of a performance basis have largely fizzled in the face of budget constraints.

“There are a lot of [policymakers] who are really excited about [performance pay], and think it can go somewhere, but they don’t have the money now,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which advises state and local officials on education matters.

Interest Persists

Money woes have also shown up on the local level in districts large and small. Voters in the 2,500-student Plymouth, Wis., district turned down a referendum this year that would have supported a new salary schedule recognizing four levels of teacher skill. And officials in both the 215,000-student Philadelphia school system and the 1,700-student Steamboat Springs, Colo., district declared last spring that they could not afford to go ahead with performance-pay plans that depended heavily on classroom observation.

Still, interest in paying teachers differently is alive and even well, according to Allan Odden, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an authority on revamping teachers’ pay.

“I’m kind of surprised by it,” Mr. Odden said. “Things have continued pretty hot and heavy, despite the economy.”

Last month, for instance, the center Mr. Odden co-directs in Madison, which is part of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, hosted a fifth annual conference on new approaches to teacher compensation. More than 300 people, including policymakers and teams from school districts, were represented at the Chicago-area gathering, Mr. Odden said.

Important Tool

Two trends have brought home the need for change, even if they have not made it any simpler to come up with practical solutions.

The first is the movement for clear academic standards and heightened accountability, which insists on improved student achievement, sets out ways to measure it, and provides consequences for success or failure. The second is a virtual consensus that in the quest for improvement, teachers are the most important ingredient.

Different Ways of Paying Teachers

Today, the vast majority of teachers continue to be paid on the basis of salary schedules that reward them for years of service and the accumulation of course credits in education. But some districts have experimented with other options.

Knowledge- and Skills-Based Salary Schedules

Under such plans, teachers can receive raises for meeting student-achievement goals; taking part in professional-development activities or learning a specific skill; showing proficiency in a particular area through classroom observations and the collection of lesson plans and students’ work; providing services to the school district; or taking on professional responsibilities such as mentoring new teachers.

Bonuses and Salary Increases for Achieving National Certification

Many states and districts offer bonuses or salary increases to teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

School-Based Performance-Award Programs

These group bonuses for schoolwide performance are paid on top of teachers’ salaries.

Incentives or ‘Market Pay’ for Teachers in Subject Areas with Shortages or Hard-to-Staff Schools

Teachers in shortage fields, such as special education or science and mathematics, can receive higher pay. So can teachers who are willing to take tough or unpopular school assignments.

Signing Bonuses

These are offered to teachers as incentives to sign on with particular school districts, as is done with desirable candidates in private industry.

SOURCE: Allan Odden, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Education Week

As policymakers try to raise teacher quality, therefore, they view changing the pay system as a potentially important tool. For decades, teachers in the vast majority of districts have been paid on the basis of years of service and course credits and degrees—not on how well they do their jobs.

Teachers typically also receive no higher salary for teaching in a field with shortages, such as mathematics, or taking tough assignments that other teachers avoid, such as in schools with discipline and achievement problems.

Instead, reformers argue that teachers should be rewarded for the activities most closely tied to a school’s goals or for student results. They also want to pay more to those in the positions that are hardest to fill.

“If you don’t reward excellence, the outcome is mediocrity,” argued Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former chairman and chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp. He is the founder and chairman of the Teaching Commission, a New York City-based organization that advocates reshaping the profession.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, recently embraced the commission’s recommendations, including its call to make changes in the way teachers are paid.

As evidence that the idea of changing the salary schedule for teachers is gaining traction, Mr. Gerstner also pointed to the expansion of the Milken Family Foundation’s Teacher Advancement Program.

The program tries to draw talented people into teaching by, among other measures, compensating teachers for their “roles and responsibilities,” their classroom skills, and their students’ performance.

Since it was launched by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based foundation four years ago, more than 70 schools in eight states have joined. In September, Minnesota earmarked $2.6 million in federal grant money to finance the program in three Minneapolis schools.

Limited Record

The most controversial approach to compensating teachers differently is “performance” pay. In the strictest sense, it means rewarding teachers for results—usually students’ meeting test-score targets.

Often regarded as an alternative to performance pay though sometimes grouped under that term, “knowledge- and skills-based” compensation pays teachers for their accomplishments, which are assessed in a variety of ways. Among those are classroom observation, completion of workshops, or successful service to a school or district.

Both are complicated to work out in a new salary system. But pay for performance draws the most opposition from teachers and their unions, which are wary of teacher accountability for student test scores, which are subject to a myriad of influences.

On the other hand, performance pay appeals immediately to many elected officials, who see it as getting to the heart of the matter.

The only kind of performance pay that has much of a record is group bonuses. In Florida, North Carolina, and Anne Arundel County, Md., for instance, the faculties of schools hitting test-score targets share a pot of reward money.

The plan that Denver teachers approved last March combines strictly defined performance options—raising students’ scores on state tests—with others related to knowledge and skills. And teachers would receive permanent raises for their accomplishments, which would stack up on top of districtwide base pay. (“Teacher Vote on Merit Pay Down to Wire,” March 17, 2004.)

The plan won’t go into effect unless voters approve a $25 million annual tax increase next November to pay for it.

But its acceptance by teachers—who can choose to stick with the existing pay schedule for the life of their careers—has heartened proponents of new pay approaches.

Meanwhile, the Idaho state school board is working on an alternative pay plan that it hopes to present to the legislature in January, with the idea of piloting the plan in a few districts next fall. Among the possibilities that have been discussed by a committee charged with examining the options are individual raises or group bonuses based on student achievement and rewards for individual initiative, such as getting parents to school.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, has signaled that he wants some pay-for-performance measures to be part of an education package for the 2005 legislative session, although he has not revealed what they would be.

After meeting in September with some 200 teachers whom he asked to advise him, the governor told local reporters in Jackson, Miss., that teachers weren’t necessarily opposed to the concept, but had “tremendous concern that the system be fair to everybody.”

At the local level in Delaware, a new task force in the 19,000-student Christina district, that state’s largest, is exploring the possibility of revamping teacher compensation.

And in the Evanston-Skokie, Ill., district, where teachers are already paid more for serving on district committees and engaging in other professional activities, a joint union-district committee is set to consider using student achievement for pay increments.

Experts on new forms of pay have different ideas about how long it takes to draw up workable compensation plans. But there’s no disagreement about the political obstacles that accompany the technical issues.

‘Out the Door’

Teachers and administrators in the LaCrescent-Hokah district in southeastern Minnesota, for example, worked hard devising and pilot-testing a new pay system over two years, only to find that the prospect that some teachers would get a raise of $4,000 while others got nothing drew some very negative reactions.

That was especially true because all teachers weren’t ready to accept the teaching model that formed the basis of their evaluations, said Ronald D. Wilke, the principal of LaCrescent-Hokah Elementary School.

“After the first two years, the teachers were ready to throw it out the door,” said Daniel M. Krenz, the superintendent of the 1,600-student district.

Instead, the local teachers’ union and the district tried again, developing a plan that requires teachers to set and meet professional-development goals directly related to their classroom work. It is in effect this school year.

“We haven’t developed many approaches that are simple enough that people can understand and see the fairness in them,” said former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, a Democrat who now runs an education institute that bears his name in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Mr. Hunt’s institute gathered more than a score of governors for a retreat this past summer that examined teacher-quality issues, including compensation.

“My guess is if the economy comes back and we really commit ourselves to improving teaching, . . . we’ll have the funds for across-the-board salary increases and some serious funding for pay for performance,” Mr. Hunt said. “I don’t believe we can get [individualized pay] unless we do some of both at the same time, especially as we begin.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Tight Budgets Prompt More Talk Than Action on Teacher-Pay Plans


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