Slogans usually aren’t very informative, but sometimes they can be downright misleading.
The Colorado Education Association recently unveiled a campaign under the alliterative slogan “Professional Pay.” The plan calls for a $40,000 salary for every new Colorado teacher by 2011. School districts in Aspen and Westminster already have acceded to the demand.
The Colorado Education Association also wants all Colorado teachers with 10 years of experience and 30 academic credits beyond a master’s degree to take home $80,000 a year. In affluent Cherry Creek, such a teacher made $60,000—a full 25 percent less—in 2006-07. Most rural eastern Colorado school districts, areas with lower costs of living, don’t even pay the superintendents an $80,000 salary.
Yet union officials’ steep demands do not include paying teachers like most others professionals: based on performance. Instead, CEA is content to inject much more taxpayer money into the single salary schedule, which gives automatic raises based strictly on seniority and certain academic credentials. A new report estimates these automatic raises make up 12 percent of school district expenses. Other research shows academic credentials and experience beyond the first few years have no impact on student learning.
The single salary schedule fits the factory model. Its introduction served the purpose of standardizing pay, ensuring that schools would not discriminate against teachers based on race or sex. But having wiped out meaningless distinctions, the schedule also misses important ones, such as the ability to help students learn.
With each passing year, the defense of the old system becomes less tenable. New studies demonstrate the effectiveness of merit pay. Meanwhile, better technology enables more precise measurements of individual teacher contributions to student growth.
The salary schedule the Colorado Education Association defends isn’t structured to promote quality instruction. Rewarding longevity mainly begets instructors with patience and persistence to hang around. It leaves behind some instructors of the highest caliber. In an increasingly mobile career environment, many potentially great teachers are lost to a system with most of its rewards stacked years down the road.
The education association officially has declared neutrality on teacher pay reform. The union says that districts must work with local associations to create acceptable new pay systems. As an example, Denver’s ProComp is the nation’s premier example of innovative and collaborative performance-based compensation. Local union involvement has been crucial to ProComp’s political success. Yet while the system is a commendable step toward needed reform, it falls short by focusing too much of its rewards on areas that have no proven impact on student achievement.
Instead of actively working to promote performance-based compensation, Colorado Education Association officials have taken a more predictable and costly tack. Their “Professional Pay” campaign promotes across-the-board raises. The association’s platform also supports class size reduction (which, among other things, helps to increase membership), while its leaders serve as chief defenders of the golden parachutes doled out to retired instructors. Conceding to all the union’s demands would require a massive subsidy increase, one with no promising connection to improved results for students.
At the same time, the union derides “merit pay plans that pit employee against employee for a limited amount of money that is distributed through subjective criteria.” Fears of threats to teacher solidarity may be misplaced, though. The study of an Arkansas merit pay pilot project found that rewarding teachers for improving student test scores improved not only test scores, but also teachers’ attitudes about students and their relationships with colleagues.
Local and state policy makers should find the wherewithal to pursue policies in the best interest of students. They should work to bring the teachers union along, rather than wait for its support. Promoting teacher quality through merit-based pay is essential to getting the most out of our schools. Colorado education leaders ought not be afraid to recognize and reward classroom success.
Shelling out $40,000 a year to new teachers with special abilities who make a measurable difference in improving student achievement? That’s the kind of “professional pay” our education system badly needs.
This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on July 27, 2007.