September 27, 2017

Age Is Just a Number: Rethinking the Role of Seniority in Teacher Compensation

apples on top of books

For decades, teachers have been paid according to seniority and educational degree level; that’s beginning to change.

Lately, policymakers and education advocates have been experimenting with new tools for improving American public education, from adopting radical new pedagogical techniques to employing artificial intelligence-based adaptive learning programs. However, one area stands out as so fundamental yet so resistant to change that, until recently, many activists had given up on it: teacher compensation reform.

Should good teachers be paid more than bad teachers?

Perhaps the most contentious area of compensation reform is pay for performance (PFP) which involves paying teachers more if they drive better student outcomes. It upends the traditional single salary schedule model that bases teacher pay entirely on seniority and education level. Reform advocates argue that the prospect of higher pay motivates teachers to improve, just as bonuses are widely used in the private sector to encourage workers to be more productive. While the idea that higher pay will motivate better work seems reasonable, the evidence is limited and often inconclusive: research tends to show that paying teachers more improves student outcomes, but studies looking strictly at the impact of bonus structures often have conflicting results.

Advocates for continued use of the single salary schedule argue that performance-based payments are ineffective because accurately measuring teacher performance is nearly impossible and even if it were not, PFP creates a toxic, competitive school atmosphere. However, recent approaches to PFP have sought to address these issues, and policymakers are taking note.

New tools make it possible to distinguish the good from the bad

One of the most innovative and high-profile approaches to measuring teacher performance was brought to the public’s attention in 2009 by Michelle Rhee, former superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Her measurement tool, developed by research firm Mathematica and Harvard professor Thomas Kane as part of a larger framework for teacher accountability called “IMPACT,” relied on a fixed effects multivariate regression to measure teachers’ “value-added” effect on student test scores. Unlike traditional measurement systems, the IMPACT tool accounted for things outside a teacher’s control like student intelligence (measured by previous test performances), family socioeconomic status, and English proficiency. This meant that only recent “shocks” affecting a student’s testing capability — like a newly-developed cognitive impairment — could unfairly affect a teacher’s IMPACT score. While shocks do happen, they’re relatively rare and distributed across classrooms.

In addition to Washington, DC, a number of other public school districts (e.g., Chicago) and states (e.g., Florida and Ohio) have adopted value-added measures as part of teacher evaluation systems. However, despite the quantitative rigor and objective nature of effective value-added modeling compared to more subjective evaluation methods, it is yet to be widely adopted. Importantly, its wide adoption could facilitate increased use of effective PFP as a way to retain strong teachers and motivate poor and average performers to improve.

Meanwhile, to address the ‘competitive environment’ concern of opponents to PFP, bonus models have been adapted to apply not just to individual teachers, but also wider groups — like teacher teams and entire schools — to encourage collaboration. Some bonus models have even included school support staff as potential beneficiaries of improved student outcomes.

PFP is just one example of compensation reform

PFP is not always possible given the strength of teacher union opposition. It is also not always wise to implement: situations exist in which teachers are stretched too thin to be expected to find ways to improve student outcomes no matter the strength of incentives. However, PFP is only one approach to compensation reform.

The hard-to-staff schools model involves higher salaries for teachers who agree to work in high-needs schools or otherwise difficult educational environments. The San Francisco United School District provides up to $2,000 per year for educators who teach in high-needs schools — a list the district updates on an annual basis.

Relatedly, the hard-to-staff subjects model reflects the need to incentivize teachers to specialize in areas facing shortages of talent. For example, the Delaware Department of Education forgives college loans for students working towards teaching certifications in “shortage areas.” Students intending to teach middle school and high school math and/or science are given first preference for admission to the program.

To retain strong teachers and encourage them to take on additional responsibility, the career ladders approach pays more to teachers who do more for their schools. The New York City Department of Education implemented a teacher-leadership program in struggling schools that offered strong performers a host of new incentives, from a $7,500 raise to open up their classrooms for observation to a $12,500 raise for mentoring their peers and running schoolwide training sessions.

In addition, skills- and knowledge-based incentives are used to motivate teachers to achieve certain milestones related to professional development (e.g., special certifications). For example, Denver Public Schools increases a teacher’s salary by $759 for completing “Professional Development Units” which involve teachers learning/developing a new skill or capability, applying it to their classroom, and reflecting on its effectiveness.

No silver bullet, but plenty of options

The current salary model is ripe for improvement: seniority and education level are very weakly correlated with student outcomes. While there may not be a silver bullet for replacing the old model, there are plenty of options from which to choose. However, policymakers would be wise to take a page from the private sector: no business succeeds by paying their best and worst employees the same amount of money over an entire career.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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