Change pay, change teaching?
One thing holding the teaching profession back is its vastly outdated pay system, say proponents of new compensation plans.
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"You can't be a dictator and expect things to be done successfully," says Kim Ursetta, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. "There has to be that commitment to doing it collaboratively."
Part of the resistance to any changes in teacher pay stems from the history of the current system. In the early 20th century, when it was common for women and minorities to be paid less, unions fought hard for the so-called single-salary schedule, in which all teachers are paid based on years of experience and levels of education.
"Having a single-salary schedule was a human rights victory," says Gonring of the Rose Community Foundation. "But now that we've moved beyond that, the civil rights issue has shifted to students and what we're going to do so that students have teachers who produce results."
A number of merit-pay programs were tried in the 1980s, but they generally failed or didn't last long because of budget cuts. They left a bad taste in many teachers' mouths.
But in Denver, some teachers – especially young teachers – have welcomed the change. It makes teaching more attractive, they say, knowing it might be treated more like other professions, in which their performance affects their pay, they get tangible feedback for outstanding results, and they have the opportunity to earn a better salary.
"Telling me I'll have some great pension plan 20 years down the road isn't going to keep me here now," says Ben Jackson, an Advanced Placement English teacher at Bruce Randolph School, the same school where Betz works. Mr. Jackson is young and energetic, in his second year of teaching, and he's eager to work with low-income kids and embrace new reforms.
But he also acknowledges that the traditional teacher career path – with few opportunities to augment his salary and no reward for outstanding performance beyond personal satisfaction – has little appeal for him. Many teachers from his generation, he notes, leave the classroom for policy work after just a few years, despite their love of teaching.
ProComp doesn't solve all Jackson's concerns about stagnating as a teacher, but it helps address some of them. This is where the profession is headed, he says.
"To be able to say, 'I know I'm doing a great job, and I want to be paid for doing a great job,' is paramount," he says.
One thing many systems are trying to do is reward not just performance, but also the decision to work in a school like Bruce Randolph, where 95 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches and it can be tough to attract high-quality teachers. When it opened in 2002, the school had so many problems that its entire administration was replaced in the first month. After the first three years, it was the lowest-performing middle school in Colorado.
When Kristin Waters came in as principal in 2005, she asked to have the school included in the ProComp plan. She hoped it would help her recruit new, talented teachers.
Betz, Jackson, and other teachers say the $2,300 bonus they receive for working there isn't the only – or even the primary – reason they chose the school. But the extra money doesn't hurt, and teachers should be rewarded for working in such schools, they say.
Most contentious issue
Even if more teachers are coming on board with the idea of rewarding the best among them, the most contentious piece of performance pay remains how to determine who those teachers are. Most are resistant to emphasizing student test scores. For starters, standardized tests typically cover only certain subjects in certain years, meaning that some teachers could be left out. But on the other hand, scores can rarely be tied to one teacher, since they're usually viewed as the result of a longer, broader process.
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.