Making Utah education truly exceptional – pay teachers differently

No, I’m not going back on my recommendation that Utah raise teacher salaries. Since I firmly believe that teachers must at minimum tolerate, and at best lead, educational change, I think that even a modest across-the-board pay increase would send a signal that reformers view teachers as allies, not adversaries.

But – yeah, you saw this one coming – I think much if not most of the pay increase should be targeted strategically.

I’m suspicious of any one-size-fits-all scheme for instituting performance pay, or using pay to address teacher shortfalls. Not only do I believe that competition fosters innovation; I also believe that needs and priorities differ from school district to school district.

So here are just a few ideas, none of them original.

1) Give individual school districts – and probably better yet, individual principals – a pot of money to experiment with selective pay increases. As long as this didn’t tie administrators’ hands too much, I’d favor adding a requirement that whatever scheme administrators select must be negotiated with teachers. Over time, the state might give schools that produced significant student improvement using some kind of reasonably sophisticated value-added model – in other words, a model that looked at student starting points and demographics, and used a variety of measures including test scores, graduation rates, attendance, etc. – more performance pay dollars. One advantage of this sort of scheme is that principals would be able to adopt school-wide or team-based goals; the rewards could be communal as well as individual.

The Utah legislature recently passed a new, teacher-supported law that puts more heat on administrators to improve teacher evaluations. Why not give those administrators some carrots to hand out with the sticks?

2) Increase pay for teachers in selective disciplines and more challenging schools. History and political science majors (like me!) have fewer employment options than math, computer technology, and science majors, and those options generally offer lower pay. Why shouldn’t teaching salaries reflect this reality, especially since almost everyone agrees that we need especially dramatic improvement in STEM (science, technology, math) learning? And how about higher pay for experienced teachers who agree to teach in schools with a higher proportion of low-income kids? A recent poll found that 83% of teachers support this reform.

3) Replace or supplement the automatic pay increases that accompany masters degrees with pay increases more specifically targeted to training that meets an individual school’s or district’s needs. So, for example, many schools are eager to offer more concurrent enrollment courses, but concurrent enrollment teachers must generally hold a masters degree or above in the subject they teach. These advanced degrees are often more rigorous, more time-consuming, and more expensive than education masters’ degrees. Why not acknowledge this in the pay scales? I admit that I don’t have a particularly high opinion of education masters degrees, or many education courses, for that matter, and I’d note that our Secretary of Education vehemently agrees. But why not start by simply broadening the definition of useful, and remunerated, advanced training?

4) Pay more for added responsibilities. Yes, schools do this now, up to a point, but usually not in proportion to differential effort. Every teacher knows that some colleagues put in lots more time tutoring students, mentoring student organizations, coaching sports or activities, or even just assigning and grading more essays. Why not give principals more leeway to reward this extra effort? Again, I’d recommend that teachers be heavily involved in developing criteria and monitoring implementation, to minimize problems of principal favoritism (we’ll never get rid of this problem entirely, any more than favoritism can be eliminated from any non-automatic pay scheme.)

These are just a few ideas. I’d love suggestions for more.

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