Change pay, change teaching?
One thing holding the teaching profession back is its vastly outdated pay system, say proponents of new compensation plans.
Taylor Betz will make a lot more as a high school math teacher this year than her normal salary might suggest.Skip to next paragraph
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There's the $2,300 bonus she gets for working at a "hard-to-serve school," the $2,300 for filling a "hard-to-staff position," the $2,300 that all teachers at her school are likely to get for raising student scores on state tests, the $2,300 "beating the odds" bonus she gets for significantly raising the math scores of her own students, and a few smaller bonuses.
Given the extra money, it's easy to see why a teacher like Ms. Betz would be an enthusiastic supporter of the "pay for performance" system that Denver has adopted. But even though such systems are proliferating, they're still both highly controversial and little understood.
Performance pay is one of several areas getting attention right now as education reformers zero in on high-quality teaching as the key to helping students learn. The thinking goes like this: It takes good teachers to improve student achievement, and it will take better pay to lure and keep good teachers.
Not only that, advocates of these plans say, but pay should be more directly linked to how well teachers do. And one way to make that link is by looking at students' scores on standardized tests.
Critics, including many unions, point to several issues. It's difficult to determine which teachers are most effective, and it's particularly unfair to tie pay partly to student test scores, the critics say. Also, there's a lack of solid evidence so far that changing the pay structure really improves teaching.
Proponents, meanwhile, insist that one thing holding the teaching profession back is its vastly outdated pay system.
"The single most important [in-school] determinant of a student's success in the classroom is the teacher," says Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "Yet the ways in which we compensate teachers – years of experience and degrees held – are not strongly correlated with student achievement gains.... That's driving some advocates [of compensation changes] to say there must be a better way."
Where this is happening
Florida, Minnesota, and Texas, along with several other states to a lesser degree, now have policies promoting what's sometimes called merit pay. Houston and New York City have recently developed districtwide programs. And even in the midst of the recession, a portion of schools in dozens of districts are trying experiments through grants from foundations and the US Department of Education's Teacher Incentive Fund.
Denver's system, called ProComp, is the longest-running performance-pay system for a big district in the United States. Its pilot project began in 1999. Now, some 70 percent of Denver teachers – and all new teachers – participate. The cost is funded entirely by a property-tax hike of $25 million per year that voters approved.
Already, backers there say they've seen a change in the culture, with many teachers welcoming the new pay system and approaching goals differently. And preliminary results from an internal study indicate that ProComp teachers are driving higher student performance – but the reason for the improvement isn't definitive yet. An external evaluation is due later this year.
Pioneering salary plans
Most districts experimenting with new pay structures for teachers have opted for basing rewards on a wide variety of factors. Here are some of the most common:
•Hard-to-serve schools: Schools with a high level of low-income or low-achieving students often have difficulty attracting and keeping teachers, so some districts offer better salaries at these schools as an incentive.
•Hard-to-staff positions: Some districts also offer better salaries in subject areas that have a teacher shortage, such as math and science.
•Additional responsibilities: In some schools, experienced teachers are rewarded for mentoring new teachers or becoming "master teachers" who help improve instruction beyond their own classrooms.
•Key skills: Instead of automatically giving extra pay for advanced degrees, some districts are more selective and reward knowledge and skills that are related to district goals, such as certification in bilingual education.
•Performance: "Performance pay" or "merit pay" are often used as umbrella terms for all the factors above. But more narrowly, they also can refer to salaries or bonuses tied specifically to teachers producing strong gains in student achievement, based on standardized tests or some other measure that's deemed objective.