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Performance-Based Pay to Attract the Best and Brightest Teachers

Greeley-Evans School District 6 has been focused on a dispute over across-the-board teacher pay raises. But school leaders there and elsewhere would do well to seek a longer-term solution to change how teachers are paid.

Greeley’s school board president recently told The Greeley Tribune that available funds only allow a 1.5 percent base salary raise. Seeking a 3.5 percent step increase, a teacher responded that district leaders have “broken promises” and shortchanged teachers based on the salary schedule agreement.

But another sort of delayed promise lurks in the background: The promise of how Greeley might pay teachers differently. In 2009, district and union officials agreed in writing to convene a working group “for the purpose of studying, evaluating, and developing recommendations for a system or systems of pay for performance.”

Five years have passed, and the topic of teacher performance pay in Greeley hasn’t yet risen to the level of a serious policy conversation.

The current system, in widespread use nationally, is broken and inefficient. It’s an industrial model built for a different era. The traditional salary schedule rewards teachers strictly for seniority and completed graduate-level education courses.

Yet research consistently tells us that model doesn’t adequately reward the teachers who do the most to help students learn. In fact, it discourages some top-flight teachers from sticking with the profession — or entering in the first place.

The goal of finding a better pay system is to provide more students direct access to great teachers. If crafted correctly, performance-based compensation ultimately attracts the best and brightest into the profession and helps to keep them there.

Great teachers open doors for kids. Economist Eric Hanushek estimates that a disadvantaged student’s extra learning gained from repeated exposure to great teachers could add tens of thousands dollars more in future lifetime earnings.

Yet current policies are more geared at supporting the comfort and convenience of adults. Teachers are accustomed to being paid on objective but largely unimportant criteria, and many are averse to risk. District administrators have an easier time using the same predictable payroll systems and processes. Most leaders lack the will to upset the apple cart, and opponents too often cite the lack of a perfect alternative as cause to hinder progress toward a better model.

Building an effective and sustainable pay system requires thoughtful hard work, honest communication, and careful attention to how teachers are evaluated and student progress is measured.

Making the change starts with determined leadership. Under the leadership of then-superintendent Mike Miles, the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs took the plunge. District leaders built true performance pay atop a culture of urgency and high expectations. They created a rigorous and improving system of teacher evaluations, and developed a growing crop of useful data to measure student progress across grades and subject areas.

In Harrison, years of service and graduate degrees have no direct effect on what teachers earn. Those who excel have a faster track to high earnings than their professional peers throughout the state. The high-poverty district has seen achievement scores rise substantially above what one would expect for its demographics.

Union resistance and delay make the Harrison approach difficult for elected reformers in other districts to follow.

For many years, Jeffco leaders have talked about the idea of performance pay without taking serious steps toward fundamentally new pay structures. The new board majority recently opted to break a negotiation logjam by adopting a simple merit-based method to dole out teacher raises. Critics said the board acted disrespectfully because local union leaders didn’t sign off on the plan. Yet the change actually worked to most teachers’ benefit.

Jeffco’s evaluation system, crafted in collaboration with the union, rated 98 percent of teachers effective or higher. Nearly all teachers earned more, with highly effective teachers bringing home the biggest pay raise.

No one can guarantee that Greeley, Jeffco, or other districts would mirror Harrison’s success by pursuing a similar path. Even so, the potential of performance pay demands less talk and more action.

Ben DeGrow (ben@i2i.org) is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on November 6, 2014.