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Suttons Bay Joins Harrison with More NFL-Like Teacher Pay Innovations

Last week I shared with you an update about the Harrison School District’s forward-thinking teacher compensation system. Led by superintendent Mike Miles, the Colorado Springs-area district is one of the few in the state, or even in the nation, to completely discard the old salary schedule and its rigid payment of teachers based on years of experience and graduate course credits.

The timing of my update turns out to be really good. This morning I found out that a school district in Michigan, of all places, is pushing forward with a plan to pay its 60 teachers more like attorneys and less like blue-collar factory workers:

Suttons Bay Public Schools has achieved a rarity – a teachers union contract that pays teachers for performance and not seniority. While most every other Michigan district has a salary schedule that gives automatic raises to teachers for every year they work, Suttons Bay approved a four-year contract that groups teachers based upon performance, starting in the 2012-2013 school year….

“This is a vast improvement over the factory model compensation system used in nearly every school district throughout the country,” [Mackinac Center for Public Policy education policy director Michael] Van Beek wrote in an email. “Teachers are going to be rewarded for their classroom performance and leadership, not simply for years on the job or number of college credits completed. Effective teachers will be able to secure higher pay more quickly, but highly paid teachers will also have to constantly demonstrate their value to the district. This creates a much more professional environment, and one that’s zeroed in on a singular goal — increased student learning.”

Well said. Suttons Bay superintendent Mike Murray raised a great point in the Michigan Capitol Confidential report about the old system’s incentives driving teachers to earn master’s degrees that added no value to classroom performance or student learning. Some of you out there might wish that I’d give out dollar bills every time I raised the point about these ineffective “master’s bumps.” Instead, you’ll just have to revel along with me in the 34-0 football-style blowout.

Speaking of football, the Wall Street Journal today features a great opinion piece by legendary NFL Hall of Fame quarterback (even before my parents’ time) Fran Tarkenton on the very same topic. Here’s a snippet to whet the appetite:

Imagine the National Football League in an alternate reality. Each player’s salary is based on how long he’s been in the league. It’s about tenure, not talent. The same scale is used for every player, no matter whether he’s an All-Pro quarterback or the last man on the roster. For every year a player’s been in this NFL, he gets a bump in pay. The only difference between Tom Brady and the worst player in the league is a few years of step increases. And if a player makes it through his third season, he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.

Let’s face the truth about this alternate reality: The on-field product would steadily decline. Why bother playing harder or better and risk getting hurt?

Of course, Tarkenton is making a strong analogy to the way most public school teachers are paid and retained today. I don’t know if he is aware of what Colorado’s Harrison 2 and Michigan’s Suttons Bay School District are doing. But if so, the former Vikings quarterback might be pleased to see at least two public school district pay systems much more closely aligned to the NFL and most private-sector businesses.

Spike the ball, Mr. Tarkenton. And give out a couple big high-fives to Mr. Miles and Mr. Murray. We know what clearly isn’t working. We know it’s neither easy nor simple to change bureaucratic cultures for the better. But we can and should celebrate the small breakthroughs that are happening to help transform 21st-century American education into a more productive and successful enterprise.