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Teachers Need More Pay, Not Merit Pay

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I used to jump at the chance to share my views on performance pay for teachers. In my first article, published in 2007 when I was a third-year teacher, I wrote, "Performance pay done right could be one of the best things to happen to teachers, to our schools, and to our profession."

Today, I feel far more cautious about even discussing merit pay. The shortcomings of traditional teacher pay structures are still glaring, but the potential for disastrous alternatives is much clearer.

At this point, I’ve chosen a stable union salaried teaching position for myself over other available options. I do believe there’s a better way forward. But updating teacher pay structures needs to be about more than trailblazing ways to pay excellent teachers more, as I once believed. Instead, we need to begin with overhauling how we think about all teachers’ worth.

In fact, the only way to really address the historical inequity built into our compensation is to raise base pay. This idea is gaining traction: It’s been the rallying cry of teachers across the country, as they’ve made the difficult decision to walk out of their classrooms and strike over the past year, demanding fair compensation for their work. Without raising base pay, new systems will simply move inadequate funds around and introduce new issues of inequity along the way.

Teacher Pay Structures Are Outdated

The systems we have in most of the United States for paying teachers are based on gradual raises for each year we stay, and they offer significant salary bumps for more education. This “step and lane” model is clear-cut, but it falls short in several ways:

1. With the significant exception of districts that recognize National Board Certification in their salary schedules, this system doesn’t respond to the quality of the work teachers do, many of the efforts we invest to expand our skill sets or solve problems, or our actual impact on students, colleagues, and school communities.

2. Rewarding credits incentivizes teachers to invest their time and energy in coursework rather than in their teaching. The connection between coursework and classroom practices is often negligible.

3. We lack teacher career tracks that compete financially with the lure of becoming a school administrator. In most places now, the pathway to higher compensation eventually leads out of the classroom.

Ideally, a performance pay system would address these shortcomings. It would also be a vehicle to professionalize teaching—to create varied roles that evolve over the stages of a teacher’s career and professional salaries to match the progression. And it would encourage more skilled, passionate teachers to stay in teaching, rather than leave for higher status positions away from classrooms.

The models I’ve seen, though, have not come close to achieving this dream.

When Innovation Isn't the Key

The Denver system, ProComp, once seemed like a promising example of innovation in teacher pay structure. But increasingly, the district’s teachers have criticized the system as confusing, unpredictable, and inadequate in the face of the rising cost of living in the area. And they went on strike to change it.

ProComp had created a slew of unintended consequences. While base pay was stagnant, it offered bonuses—but those were moving targets from year to year. “ProComp started incentivizing the wrong kind of conversations among colleagues that had practice disagreements,” Zach Rupp, who taught in Denver from 2006 to 2018 and was one of the authors of a report on how ProComp might be redesigned, told me. “You’d hear, ‘Don’t you want the bonus?’ as part of these conversations about practice, and ultimately, certain teachers might be singled out as to the reason a school lost a particular bonus. Lots of damage to staff cohesiveness.”

In New York City charter schools, I’ve also seen various attempts to create tiered career paths. Teachers can earn promotions in these systems, which include significant salary bumps. But most schools implement these plans with the same funding as district schools, and have to remove a benefit or make another significant trade-off in order to fund these higher salaries. Funding limitations also mean that there might be an undisclosed cap on the number of promotions possible.

What I’ve come to realize is that teacher base pay across the country is problematic in a way that creativity can’t solve. And just as you wouldn’t waste time building a deck on a house with a crumbling foundation, this core problem must be addressed before we can move in new directions.

The Real Stumbling Block: Inequity in Teacher Pay

Education is considered the key to opportunity, and yet teachers are systematically undervalued. Why should teaching—literally preparing our nation’s future—be a job that people equate with personal sacrifice?

According to a recent article on teacher salaries in Time magazine, the discrepancy between teacher pay and that of comparably educated professionals is 18.7 percent. A report by the Brookings Institute says, “Even against modest-paying Finland, American teachers are underpaid. If we wanted to raise the relative salaries of American teachers to the level seen in Finland, we’d require a 10 percent raise for primary school teachers … and a 28 percent raise for upper secondary school teachers.”

The reason for low teacher pay is not a mystery—it’s because teaching has traditionally been viewed as women’s work. As Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson puts it in Time, “The hidden ‘subsidy of public education’ is the fact that teachers for many years were necessarily working at suppressed wage levels because they really had no options other than teaching.” That’s no longer the case today, but teacher pay has not caught up.

A Fair System Would Address Sexism First

I now see that teachers can’t risk losing the relative stability of a straightforward pay scale in a society that does not show, through its policies, respect for teachers’ work. To risk stability in a climate like that is dangerous, as results so far have shown. It dares us to compete with one another for crumbs.

Instead, we need a bold move toward pay equity for teachers. This will necessitate an adjustment in school funding and tax structures.

I recognize that funding an across-the-board raise for teachers would be a major political challenge, but I don't believe it would be insurmountable. Strike wins have made this more of a reality in some states. Last year in Oklahoma, the state legislature passed the first tax increase in almost three decades to give teachers a raise; recently in Denver, the district eliminated some central office positions and cut bonuses for executives to increase teacher salaries across the board.

During the 2018 midterm elections, a few gubernatorial candidates proposed tax increases to fund teacher salaries. Democrat Andrew Gillum, running in Florida, wanted to raise corporate taxes to up teachers’ starting salaries, and Maryland Democratic candidate Ben Jealous suggested boosting teacher pay by 29 percent. Though both of these candidates lost their races, they offered solutions that states could build from going forward.

Until teachers are paid a base salary on par with workers in male-dominated professions, any experiments in merit pay will ultimately fail. But if we start from a place of equity, performance pay could, one day, fulfill its promise: to encourage teachers to stay in their classrooms, build their skill sets, and become leaders in a most valuable profession.

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