Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rethinking Teacher Compensation Part III: Synthesis and Solutions

Day one, we looked at history and rationale for the single salary schedule; day two we took a critical look at neo-liberal reform proposals with an eye to avoiding bad policy.  Today, I propose a set of principles to guide good policy choices.
That said, there are many legitimate reasons to explore new ways of compensating teachers.  Financial incentives are a major lever of public policy and there are already incentives built into the single salary schedule - perhaps not the ones we want.  Compensation reform in education will be an essential component of restructuring schools for the 21st century.  I'd like to propose three basic principles to keep the change process positive and to avoid adding three million education workers to the general instability of our labor force.
  1. Strategic compensation systems should be "opt in."  The best experiments in strategic compensation do so.  This speaks to basic fairness and ethical policy around the social contract.  Veteran educators rightly are cautious about change, having experienced the endless churn of half baked and half completed policy through their careers.  If the strategic compensation system is well designed, even veterans will opt in.  Districts like Denver and Baltimore have followed this practice in instituting their new contracts. 
  2. There should be an adaptive match between policy and problem.  We should not let an enthusiasm for novelty drive the process.  Disruption and change for its own sake do not add value.  Reform can  be achieved through innovative compensation practices and through  single salary schedules (Plattsburgh NY), according to conditions in the community.  We are solving education problems here, not tax policy or public relations problems.  Blind adherence to ideology has no place among leaders who value student learning.
  3. Pay people now for the work they do now.  The big problem with deferred compensation is that someday, somebody is going to have to pay for it, especially if pension systems are chronically underfunded for short term convenience.  The solution is pay as you go.  If you pay a teacher every cent they are owed at the time they perform the work, instead of with an IOU payable decades down the road, tenure and seniority then stand on their own merit as policy choices.  If separation/termination is necessary, a person can leave cleanly, knowing that no deferred money was left on the table.  This is a new type of fair, infinitely simpler and less rule bound.
During his speech at the NBPTS conference, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke of educators receiving salaries in the range of $60,000 to $150,000.  He was pinning some realistic numbers on a 21st century teacher compensation system. He wasn't talking about a juiced up single salary schedule.
Compensation reform is properly used to improve education, not save money.  To give you an idea, when Denver negotiated the Pro-Comp system with their union, the DCTA, this required 13% new money.  Denver taxpayers agreed to fund the plan by taxing themselves an additional quarter billion dollars over a ten year period.  The bottom line was that the new contract was a plan to improve education outcomes.  Taxpayers will pay for improvements, but are understandably unenthusiastic about mere inflation.
I believe there are ways of rethinking teacher compensation that can lead to better outcomes.  The difficulty we face is that the single salary schedule, pensions, benefits, tenure and seniority (not to mention collective bargaining where it exists) are so inextricably intertwined that you can't take a jackhammer to any one part of the edifice without bringing the whole thing down.  Political vandals may like this idea, but it is bad policy because it demoralizes education workers, degrades the quality of education and hurts students.
The ethical policy alternative is to build a shiny new compensation structure next to the old one, a structure that speaks powerfully to education quality, and solves real world education problems.  And fund it properly.  When the last person has left the old structure for the new, then you can get out the jackhammers - or better yet turn the old edifice into a museum.
Question: what principles would you add so that compensation reform is both fair and effective in advancing student learning?


  1. Steve,

    You mention that the ethical policy alternative is to build a shiny new compensation structure right beside the old one and allow teachers to opt in. Are you calling for efforts similar to the contract Rhee negotiated in DC? Teachers opting in give up the security of tenure for the potential to make much more money. While still an imperfect system when it comes to measuring teacher effectiveness (ie massive cheating scandals), it seems to be a step in the direction that you outline.

  2. Actually I disagree with the Impact approach for a variety of reasons. First, when I read the eval system, I found it quite frightening as it painted a very claustrophobic picture of what good teaching is. Second, it relied on foundation money to fund the plan. I believe that tax revenues are the only sustainable source. Third, it failed politically as the mayor, chancellor and union president all were thrown out. So even though Impact meets the opt in criterion, I think it is highly problematic.

    Interestingly, even though DC was invited to Denver, I understand they withdrew voluntarily. I don't know the full story, but I believe they felt they had some integrity problems presenting in Denver.

    Just because an approach meets one or more of my criteria, doesn't mean that it is good. Think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions. That's why I asked for more suggestions. As always, thanks for replying and thanks for pushing my thinking!

  3. I'm really enjoying this series! May I add you to my blogroll?