3.8 Pay Teachers Competitively
Teacher pay is by far the largest component of the cost of operating a school. People choose to become teachers for many reasons, but getting rich is not among them. As a job, teaching is steady, secure, middle-class work.
In decades long past, teaching was once perceived as a relatively lucrative profession for women, whose professional options were constrained. This premium has evaporated. Since about 1980, teacher pay has lagged comparable employment for both men and women.
Relative to other nations, pay for teachers in America is low. The following graph is based on OECD 2010 data, presented in Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from Around the World.
Teachers in virtually all American public schools are compensated according to a rigidly defined “single salary schedule.” If you know the number of years a teacher has worked in a district (“step”) and the number of postgraduate credits the teacher has completed (“column”), you can determine his or her pay.
The good news is that the widespread use of a single salary schedule has reduced or even erased discriminatory pay practices related to gender and ethnicity. Paired with the teacher pension system (the State Teacher Retirement System, STRS), the salary schedule also has created strong “stay-put” incentives. Seniority is generally counted in terms of the number of years a teacher has worked in a specific district. Changing districts resets the teacher’s seniority – a significant economic disincentive. This makes teachers inclined to stay with a district, even if it is a tough place to work.
The bad news is that the single salary schedule system is indifferent to expertise, effectiveness, and market conditions. Teachers earn the same regardless of whether they teach effectively or ineffectively, whether they teach a subject that requires general knowledge or specialized knowledge, whether they teach many children or a handful, and whether or not they bring out the best in their colleagues.
Many districts offer a salary increase to teachers that obtain a master’s degree. (See “3.2 Prepare and Certify Teachers” above.)
In the past few years a growing number of voices have argued that major changes to the salary schedule should be “on the table” in district and union dialogue about strategies for change.
Reforms related to teacher pay revise the salary schedule (or replace it altogether) in order to change the incentive structure. (See puzzle graphic for examples.) All elements of an alternative compensation (altcomp) program are controversial, but none more so than performance pay.
Federal programs have offered competitive grants to accelerate adoption of alternative teacher pay systems, particularly performance pay systems. Under the Bush Administration, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) committed several hundred million dollars to support programs that include a performance pay component. Under the Obama Administration, the much larger Race to the Top (RTT) and School Improvement Fund (SIF) programs also provided support for alternative compensation plans in schools with high concentrations of low-income students.
Many businesspeople regard it as self-evident that teacher pay should vary with performance. In 2009 Daniel Pink brought attention to the motivational risks of pay for performance in his bestseller Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The heart of Pink’s thesis is that intrinsic motivation comes from a desire to achieve mastery, autonomy, and purpose. He presents evidence that conditional pay incentives can actually interfere with that drive.
Evaluation of pay-for-performance trials so far have not shown widespread results in terms of student learning gains, but the results appear to vary according to program design. A study of schools using the most prominent alternative compensation system, TAP, documented significant student learning gains. As more alternative compensation experiments come online through the TIF, RTT and SIF programs, there will be plenty of opportunities to learn from experience.