Commentary | Education

A new way to pay teachers

Teachers in the United States have long been paid according to a single-tier system that bases salary on seniority and level of education, but increasingly, educational leaders are finding that system needs an overhaul. Many school districts across the country are redesigning their compensation structures in an effort to attract the best teachers and improve student achievement.

EPI’s new book, Redesigning Teacher Pay, offers a long-overdue analysis of some of these experiments. The book, the second in an ongoing EPI series on alternative teacher compensation systems, includes two such studies by Susan Moore Johnson and John Papay, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Johnson and Papay first provide a simple framework for comparing, designing, and evaluating pay-for-performance plans in education, in which they use research in economics and psychology to measure the impact of incentives on worker behavior, and apply their methodology to several well-known performance pay plans currently used in large urban school districts in the United States.

Johnson and Papay then offer their own proposal for reforming teacher compensation using a “tiered pay-and-career structure” in which teachers would have the opportunity to advance through four distinct levels of pay ranging from probationary employment to tenure, and on to higher levels of demonstrated success in improving student learning. Teachers in the upper tiers would earn substantially higher pay. This proposal offers  a significant departure from the single salary schedule but avoids many of the problems associated with performance-based pay that were outlined in Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability, the first volume in EPI’s series on teacher pay. While that earlier book highlighted some of the problems that arise when schools focus too narrowly on test scores, Johnson and Papay take a much longer-run view. They offer a career-based plan aimed at attracting and retaining quality teachers and supporting them in ongoing career development.

On October 1, the book’s authors, Susan Moore Johnson and John Papay came to EPI to discuss what they learned from studying some pay-for-performance systems for teachers in different school districts around the country. They also shared the challenges of developing a system of compensation that would help improve student learning, while also protecting teachers’ base pay and offering a transparent system in which teachers clearly understood how they could advance to a higher level.

Johnson and Papay argued that while some of the different pay-for-performance systems that they studied showed promise, most of them were also flawed. In some instances the connection between classroom activity and end-of-year bonuses appeared to be so unclear that teachers came to view bonuses like winning the lottery. Another challenge was finding ways to promote collaboration among teachers, rather than encouraging competition. “Education is in many ways a team process,” said Papay, who argued that a history teacher may contribute to a student’s reading skills.

The new teacher pay system that Johnson and Papay propose has two interrelated parts. The “tiered pay-and-career structure” is a four-level system of increasing responsibility, professional skill, and pay, through which teachers can advance as they develop and exhibit leadership skills. The second part is the “learning and development fund” for investing in the ongoing development of skills that advance the school’s core goals of promoting excellence in teaching and learning. Johnson said that one of the strengths of the proposed four-tier pay system is that it would require teachers at the top level to assume broader responsibility for improving instruction beyond their own classrooms.

Other speakers at the EPI event pointed out that there are many  challenges of implementing pay-for-performance systems in schools, which have failed many times in the past. Tom Toch, a national expert on education, who also served as a panelist, argued that the premise of performance-based pay has not been proven. He pointed to surveys which show that a large majority of both elementary and secondary teachers would rather be at a school where teachers were supported than at one that paid well. Rob Weil, deputy director for the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers, made the case for a method of compensation that was transparent and acceptable to the teachers, highlighting the importance of teacher buy-in, or “face validity”.

An audio link to the entire discussion is available here.      

Redesigning Teacher Pay is the second in an EPI research series on the topic of alternative teacher compensation. The first volume, Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability, was published earlier this year. While that book outlined many of the problems with tying pay to performance, such as a focus on meeting quotas over quality, and highlighted the relative lack of simple statistics-based pay formulas in the private sector, the latest book maintains that schools need to redesign their existing pay systems to make teaching an attractive career for the new generation of college graduates and lays out ways to achieve them.