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A Rational Reward System for Teachers

October 14, 2013

Diane Ravitch’s post today supporting the value of Master Degree’s prompted me to dig into my archives and pull out the section of the “Race To The Top: NO” white paper that offered alternatives to the existing pay schedule. What follows is a lightly edited portion of “Race to the Top: NO”, a white paper I submitted to NH Commissioner Virginia Barry in 2009 that was circulated to all Superintendents in NH:

The Case For a Rational Reward System for Teachers

While research does not support the use of assessments as a basis for setting teacher compensation, research DOES support the Race to the Top’s contention that “…measures such as certification, master’s degrees, and years of teaching experience have limited predictive power on (teacher quality).

The existing system

For the past several years, reformers have advocated changes to the unitary salary schedule (“step-and-track”) that has been in place in public education for at least the past five decades. A system advocated by teacher organizations as a means to assure pay equity among teachers, the unitary salary schedule effectively rewards teachers for successive years on the job (step advancement) and for completion of relevant course work (track advancement). Typically, the step advancement stops after 15 years and the track advancements conclude with either a doctoral degree or the equivalent number of credits.

The existing reward pattern

Implicit in this pay method is the belief that teachers improve in their performance in a linear fashion during each of their first 15 years on the job after which their experience does not warrant any pay differentiation. The system also implies that the completion of blocks of relevant coursework results in improved performance that, in turn, warrants higher compensation. Those who work in education know— and education researchers can substantiate— there is no absolute link between years of teaching experience and teaching ability nor is there any substantive difference in teaching performance that results from course work beyond the masters degree. Our current system, then, effectively undervalues performance and overvalues experience and course work.

A more rational reward system

Research and practice indicate that teachers fall into four broad categories: those beginning their career (i.e. probationary teachers); those who warrant tenure but are not fully developed in the profession (i.e. “Continuing Contract Teachers”); a group whose experience, professionalism and teaching skill warrants a higher pay grade than an emerging professional (i.e. “Career Teachers”); and a group who are universally recognized by their peers, administrators, parents, and students as exceptional (i.e. “Master Teachers”). These broad categories, or pay grades, are analogous to the system in place in many colleges and universities and in some respects similar to the compensation system used by the federal government.

Pay grade compensation differentials

Under a system like this, advancement from one pay grade to another would result in a substantial pay increase, but all teachers within a given pay grade would have the same earnings based on the assumption that all teachers within a pay grade have comparable skills. Thus, a “Career Teacher” with ten years experience would receive the same salary as a teacher in that category with twenty years experience. The four pay grades would be adjusted for cost-of-living based on an index that would be negotiated periodically in the same fashion pay scales are now negotiated.

Progression through pay grades

Progression through pay grades would be based on a combination of cumulative evaluations and the attainment of a Masters Degree or its equivalent. The evaluation process would be holistic, analogous to the process currently used to determine if a beginning teacher warrants a continuing contract. The focus of evaluation would change from one of identifying teachers who fail to meet a minimum standard to one of identifying teachers who have attained the competencies needed to advance from one pay grade to another.

Consequences of this proposal

Changing from the current method of compensation to this new model will result in many changes in the oversight of instruction at the State and local level, changes that would focus more on teacher performance and less on “clock hours” and the accumulation of credits. Would this be difficult? Absolutely. But unlike the “value added” measures effectively mandated by Race to the Top it is uncomplicated, has an analogue in academia and other professions, and would require a more rational reallocation of funds going forward as opposed to an infusion of additional funds.

How this plan might address the RTTT requirement?

“Student assessments” could be used in the holistic evaluation process that is the basis for determining progression from one pay grade to another. They would be a specific element in the evaluation process but NOT an exclusive element. The kinds of “student assessments” used to make this determination would vary from district to district since some districts already have developed databases for tracking longitudinal performance over time.  Districts that do not have such databases in place (which would include mine) would have an incentive to put one in place.

Bottom Line: From my perspective, if the creation of an alternative compensation schedule along the lines outlined above meets the spirit of the federal mandate, we should seek RTTT funds. If the RTTT funds are contingent on the development of a wholly new assessment design that requires districts to assign a heavy weight to student assessments, we should let other states compete and continue working on the transformation initiatives we already have in place. We are making progress on these initiatives without federal funds and will continue to do so in the face of the fiscal challenges in front of us.

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