Seniority? Test Scores? Student Outcomes? The Argument for Rethinking Teacher Compensation

The federal government often uses carrots and sticks to incentivize reluctant state and local agencies to change their policies and practices. The most current example of this is the Race to the Top legislation. To be eligible for the $4.35 billion in federal "Race to the Top" funds, states must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher effectiveness. States with laws restricting a link between student data and teacher pay, such as California and New York, are scrambling to change them in order to get a shot at these funds.

This flurry of activity is moving our K-12 public education system in the right direction. Not only are there important implications for how teachers are evaluated and paid, but also for how they are prepared and stay current in their jobs. So the time for meaningful exchanges on alternative teacher compensation is now.

Teachers are key to increasing student achievement among all school-related factors. Studies show that having an effective teacher three years in a row can overcome the average achievement deficit between low-income kids and their peers.

But teachers unions have long opposed using student data to evaluate teachers. They cringe at terms like "merit pay" and "pay for performance," and argue that student scores cannot accurately measure the success of a teacher. Few would claim student test scores should be the ONLY way to judge teacher effectiveness. Clearly multiple measures are critical. But some measure of improvement in student outcomes must surely be part one of the criteria.

However, the current single salary structure used at a majority of districts nationwide rewards teachers according to years of service and education credits alone. National media stories from the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times paint a frustrating picture of teachers with career longevity but well-documented poor - and even injurious - performance, who are sitting out their paid tenure as lawyers and committees battle over their termination. Tenure alone is a poor indicator for teacher quality and disconnected from improving student achievement.

The current pay structure found in most public school systems makes it hard to attract (and retain) teachers to low-income schools and neighborhoods and to subjects that are difficult to staff, like math and science. It doesn't recognize or incentivize stellar teaching. And there are too many reasons for young teachers to just give-up and quit the profession.

Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) has noted several local district initiatives already underway in Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, New York City, Toledo, and San Francisco that are successfully testing a variety of different measures to compensate teachers.

A pay plan adopted in Denver, for example, gives teachers raises of up to 45% above base salary for acquiring knowledge and skills linked to improving student achievement; teaching in hard-to-staff schools and subjects; completing performance evaluations; and improving student scores on standardized tests.

In New York City, high-needs schools that reach their growth target receive the equivalent of $3,000 per teacher, which is distributed by an elected committee.

In Toledo, teachers can earn 5% above base salary for professional development, 10% for improving student achievement, and 15% for serving as peer reviewers and curriculum developers and volunteering to work in high-needs schools.

Voters in San Francisco approved a parcel tax, with 71% of the revenue going toward teacher compensation. While the district wouldn't negotiate incentive pay, it did introduce differentiated pay with bonuses for teachers who go beyond their fourth and eighth years, those who work in hard-to-staff schools or subjects, and those in high-needs schools who are working on credentials.

According to analysis by PACE, several principles underlie all of these experiments in alternative compensation: teachers should be well paid; compensation should provide incentives for effective professional practice; the neediest children should have access to highly effective teachers; and the most effective teachers should receive more money.

As states across the nation begin linking student achievement to teacher pay, professional development programs need to begin teaching teachers to use student data effectively to understand what kids are and are not learning. New teachers will have to know what strategies the more effective teachers are using in their classrooms.

Teacher preparation programs must ensure future teachers take seriously their direct impact on student achievement. In addition, they must prepare these new teachers to analyze and use existing information about student performance and to understand the future extrinsic and intrinsic reward systems, given these new measures of accountability.

The current race to become eligible for federal funds is forcing a long-overdue examination of how we compensate our teachers, in a way that makes sense.

The rest of us are judged by how well - not how long - we've done our job. It is time to reform teacher compensation to do the same. The success of our students - and thus our country - demands it.

Karen Symms Gallagher is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.