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Dougco’s Market Pay Innovation Draws Attention, Gives Hope of Progress

Without a doubt, it’s easy for us Education Transformers to get impatient at the pace of progress, and that’s when any positive change appears to be taking place at all. Some days it just seems easier to put your head down on the desk and daydream, or maybe go count your pennies to see how much more you need to buy the new set of Legos.

Today offers a somewhat subtle example, but a very important one nonetheless. Douglas County School District’s innovative work of adopting market-based pay, recognizing the economic realities of supply and demand for different teaching specialties, got a national write-up by Reuters’ Stephanie Simon. I’m already tuned into what’s going on in Colorado’s third-largest district, so more than the information itself, it was this reaction that caught my eye:

“It’s quite novel,” said Eric Hanushek, an education economist at Stanford University.

That would be the same Eric Hanushek who is rated as the third-most influential “Edu-Scholar” in the country. And what’s his honest reaction? Dougco’s work in this area is “quite novel.” Former Education Secretary William Bennett would list market-based pay among “all of the good reforms” Dougco uniquely has taken on. I just prefer to call it one of a kind.

Earlier I told you about one Colorado charter school (included in this Independence Institute report) that has been using a differential compensation model for several years. Beyond that, I’m not aware of any school district — even the ones doing real or so-called “performance pay” — that has trod Dougco’s trailblazing path.

So much so, that Dr. Ranjit Nair’s piece on effective personnel recruiting and management, in the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Roadmap for Education Reform” series, doesn’t even mention the idea of market-based pay.

However, the Reuters piece notes that Dougco’s market-based pay system has “drawn attention” nationally from other superintendents, including Houston’s Terry Grier. So maybe it will catch on quickly, right?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The comment from a former local teachers union organizer exposes the opposition’s shoddy reasoning while also reminding us why it can be so difficult to effect such a commonsense policy change that allocates scarce resources to attract quality instructional talent:

“I really don’t believe a P.E. teacher works less than I do. He has more kids than I do. And he may be the one who’s keeping some kids in school so they’ll sit through my class,” high-school English teacher Carlye Holladay said. “You need so many different kinds of teachers to reach all kids.”

It’s not necessarily about what kind of teacher works harder — either to prepare for the job for on the job itself — though one has to wonder why more applicants are lining up for P.E. positions than for advanced math or special education. Meanwhile, the second half of her argument works precisely for the imaginative effort she is railing against. Recognizing disparities in teacher supply and demand, and being able to adjust accordingly, better ensures that capable people fill all “different kinds” of positions.

In every other sphere of life, we understand that a person has no more inherent value than another because of his or her salary. It’s how the free market functions effectively, how systems are better aligned to meet the needs of customers. Yet in the world of K-12 education, we Transformers cross our fingers and hope against hope that as Dougco moves forward with market-based pay and learns and adapts from the experience, that the idea spreads a little more quickly than the norm. Is that too much to ask?