Changing the Way We Pay Teachers

How to improve public education is one of the most important questions our society faces. School funding is down, partially due to an economy that produces less revenue, and partially due to other public sectors like corrections and medicine receiving larger portions of the state’s resources. Indeed, in the past few years, K-12 education has gone from 44 to 36% of the state’s overall budget.
Teacher cuts, higher class sizes, fewer school services, and shorter school years have been the results for our students. If Oregon is ever going to offer the first class education we claim to value, we have to work to find solutions that ensure a level of funding that is both stable and adequate to meet our students’ needs. This should be our legislators and governor’s first priority.
However, as teachers, we need to do our part. Many studies have shown that teacher quality is second only to home environment when it comes to predicting future outcomes for students. Oregon’s own Nicholas Kristof, writing for the New York Times, cited a recent study by economists at Harvard and Columbia that found the value added to the students of a high quality teacher, to be nearly $700,000 a year. The study also found that a very poor teacher had “the same effect as a pupil missing 40% of the school year.”
However, as it stands now, the only measure of a teacher’s worth, both in terms of salary and job security, is the number of years that person has been employed by the school district in which they work. Teachers that earn more graduate credits and degrees can also earn a little more in salary, but taken together, these measures can only go so far in indicating overall teacher quality. The other problem built into the way that teachers are paid, is that compensation is deferred to retirement pensions, such as the much bemoaned PERS.
This has three negative, unintended consequences: 1) education doesn’t draw many of the best and brightest college graduates, as do other fields like medicine, law, and engineering, because the system of compensation for teachers is mediocre at best; 2) teachers that would prefer to retire or work in another field after 15 or 20 years of teaching, find it almost impossible to do so given the financial incentives to continue working in the classroom; and 3) teachers that are passionate and ambitious find themselves with little options when it comes to advancing their careers, other than to move, counterproductively, out of the classroom, by becoming an administrator or a college professor.
Of course, also missing from the equation is how we directly measure teacher quality. Basing such a measurement purely on test scores, as many reformers have proposed, would be disastrous, penalizing teachers who work with at-risk students, especially those facing poverty as well as non-native English speakers. However, finding a way to measure teacher quality is tantamount to improving our system of education.
One way to address all of these problems is to create a system of teacher compensation that relies on advancement, increased responsibility, and higher salaries. Suppose that instead of continuing to operate under a clearly broken system of teacher compensation, our state government and the Oregon Education Association (the state’s teachers union) cooperated to create five categories of classroom teachers, each with ascending levels of responsibility and pay.
Here’s an example of how such a system would work:
• First, all teachers would start out as a Teacher I (representing 25-30% of the workforce), work a 190-day school year and 10 curriculum days, which would include teacher workshops and planning time (meaning a school year at least 10-15 days longer what most districts can offer currently).
• The Teacher II position (25-30%) would have the same duties as a Teacher I, with the additional responsibility of teaching at least one term of an early bird or night class, coaching a sport, or teaching summer school.
• A Teacher III (20-25%) would be required to do two of the three above.
• A Teacher IV (10-20%) would do all three, or teach a full year of early bird or night classes in addition to one of the other duties.
• The top category, a Teacher V (representing only 5-10% of all teachers), would be required to teach a full year of early bird or night classes, and summer school. They would also be required to work 20 curriculum days, chair their department or grade level, and assist administrators with hiring and evaluating teachers.
• After 3 years as a Teacher I, teachers could apply for any higher position.
• Each ascending position would receive a greater salary. Teacher I would start at $35,000; Teacher II at $45,000; Teacher III at $55,000; Teacher IV at $65,000; and Teacher V at $80,000. After each year at every position, teachers would receive a raise of $2,500 that would cap out after 7 years.
• Once a teacher had maxed out their position’s salary, they would have to choose to either remain at the same salary and continue at their current level, apply for a higher position, or move on to another career.
• Schools would still provide health benefits, but since teachers can earn higher salaries, the PERS system would be eliminated.
This type of system would create many positive outcomes: 1) the best teachers would be rewarded for their skills, 2) administrators would be accountable for developing better systems to judge and measure teacher quality, as well as for the people they hire, 3) a market of competition would develop among schools to hire the best teachers, 4) teachers that were burnt out or wanted to move on would no longer be incentivized to stay in the classroom.
Aside from a significantly longer school year, perhaps the best part of enacting such a system is that by requiring teachers as they advance, to teach summer school, early bird or night classes, and/or coach, we would ensure that the best teachers are working more with our most at-risk populations, while at the same time increasing the opportunities to intervene on behalf of students that struggle. This is a clear win-win for schools, parents, and students.
Whether such a system of compensation is possible is a question best left to budget experts. As stated earlier, if we aren’t willing to invest more in our schools, we can’t very well expect excellence. However, if legislators and citizens are willing to provide the resources, we teachers should do our part, by adopting a system of compensation that would enhance our profession as well as our students’ outcomes.

About The Author: Jay Scott

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