Reform the Way We Pay Teachers

December 2007

This article first appeared in the Seattle Times, December 19, 2007.

A year ago, Washington Learns, the governor's review of our state's education system, called for a "dramatic shift in thinking" about public education here.

The report's most controversial idea was arguably also its most important: changing the way we pay teachers to include incentives for tough assignments, expertise and their performance in the classroom.

This idea is controversial for at least two reasons, only one of which is obvious.

First, while the two major teachers' unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—are not completely opposed to pay reform, they often take a hard line against it, particularly performance-based compensation.

School boards also can run into political trouble around reform, especially when offering incentives for tough assignments that draw teachers and resources away from politically powerful constituencies in advantaged schools.

The second, less-obvious reason pay reforms are contentious is the uncertainty about the right way to put them into practice. The research base for drawing conclusions about how best to implement teacher-pay reforms is, to put it charitably, thin.

Controversy, however, is not a reason for inaction. Today's teacher-pay system is simply too out of touch to remain untouched.

For decades, and like those in most states, teachers in Washington have been, and continue to be, paid according to a table called a salary schedule. The schedule rewards teachers based solely on their degrees (e.g., having a baccalaureate or master's degree) and experience level. Pay therefore follows a very predictable pattern.

Many people will argue the problem with teacher salaries is that they are too low to attract and keep good teachers. That may be true. But the types of pay reforms outlined by Washington Learns recognize a deeper problem: the failure of the current system to make distinctions among teachers who have specialized skills, who accept difficult job assignments, or who are more effective in the classroom.

Ignoring these differences doesn't make them go away. The broader labor market tends to recognize them, even if our public schools don't, by paying extra money for special skills or difficult work. This important difference creates staffing problems in schools that are all too familiar.

It's no wonder, for example, that we have higher turnover among science and math teachers: They can make more money outside of teaching. And, it's no wonder we have higher turnover among teachers in tough teaching assignments: They can make the same salary working across town in a more-privileged setting.

The tense politics and uncertainty around pay reform shouldn't be an excuse to avoid it. Given how important teachers are to student learning, the stakes are simply too high to do nothing.

But the constraints require policymakers to be smart about reform. And that means two things: avoiding broad mandates imposed by command from on high (these create resistance) and also closely evaluating reform efforts to see what works and what doesn't.

Look at the experience of other states.

When Texas and Florida tried to mandate merit-pay plans that would reward teachers for improving test scores, many local school districts simply refused to implement them.

"Opt-in" reforms like those in Minnesota, where districts interested in experimenting with pay reform apply for additional resources to provide new incentives to teachers, are more promising.

So far, our Legislature has responded to Washington Learns by increasing to $5,000 the statewide bonus for teachers accredited by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Teachers also are eligible for an additional $5,000 if they teach in a high-poverty school.

Washington lawmakers also are taking steps to improve the state's educational data system by requiring it to include coding to match teachers to the students in their classrooms. This will allow researchers to track teachers and students over time and examine individual teacher performance.

These are positive steps. Yet what's lacking is a statewide strategy for experimenting with how we pay teachers and a plan for critiquing and improving on those experiments.

Effective pay reforms aimed at ensuring all students have effective teachers can be found. But reform will happen only if policymakers and teachers are willing to take small (and reversible) leaps of faith and if we make the deliberate choice to study and learn from the results.

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