Volume 2 Issue 1

Brief History of Teacher Compensation Models

In 1921, Denver Public Schools became one of the first school districts in the United States to adopt the single-salary schedule. More than 80 years later, DPS moved near the forefront of K-12 agencies looking to update how teachers are paid.

In its time, for the factory model of schooling, the single-salary schedule made sense; standardizing teacher pay by years of experience and by advanced courses and degrees alleviated discrimination, particularly against women.

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But the single-salary schedule fails to discriminate in a very reasonable way on what actually impacts students: how effective the teacher performs her job and improves learning. The majority of school districts are still tied to the old pay scale model and undoubtedly find it less of a hassle to continue negotiating annual across-the-board increases based on “steps and levels”.

The problem is that, blindly, the approach makes poor use of limited resources. The Center for American Progress finds that Colorado K-12 schools spent about 2 percent of their total operating budgets each year just giving teachers extra pay for earning a master’s degree. But, dozens of academic studies are unanimous that these “masters bumps” have no connection to helping students learn more.

Other studies find that the average teacher improves during his first three to five years of experience before flattening out. Some teachers perform better than others, and many grow at different paces. Yet Jeffco and many other school systems treat teachers like interchangeable widgets.

Shifting from the standard salary schedule to strategic compensation aligns education leaders’ spending with what they say they value. The mission of our schools isn’t—and shouldn’t be—longevity for longevity’s sake, or creating more busywork and gaining more credentials, which don’t prove to help students reach their goals.

The strongest compensation systems incorporate performance in determining a measure of what educators earn. Performance pay may start just with teachers, but the whole organization has to end up on the same page. Tie some of the principals’ pay to performance. And, why not so so for other employees, as well?

In the past, many skeptics have raised legitimate objections about how an instructor’s effectiveness can’t be measured honestly or fairly. Time has eroded most of those objections. The 2010 evaluation reforms (known as SB 191) have moved schools to measure performance and use the information garnered to make decisions about tenure and placement. It’s only a small step to paying our professionals accordingly, too.

Changing pay incentives merely to get results from current personnel is too limited. Research gives a mixed picture of this approach. The signals are much stronger for using compensation to build for the future. Strategic pay models attract more talented performers into the workforce, and that has the potential to provide significant lasting results for more students, who will have access to the “rockstar” teachers. Compensation redesign also ought to include being open to welcoming mid-career changers and part-timers, who may not make education a 30-year career, but have an expertise and a passion to contribute.

Just adding bonuses on to the traditional steps and levels pay scale generally has little impact. And, the approach is much harder to sustain for school district budgets that depend on less-than-predictable tax revenues.

Some innovative school districts have moved entirely beyond experience and academic credentials in compensating their teachers. They may offer different flavors of pay reform, but together they have learned the importance of implementing changes fairly and transparently—keeping open clear, two-way communication with those in the classroom trenches. If employees don’t trust the tools and buy into the procedures, making the system work well will pose a major challenge.

Less tried in K-12 education, but potentially promising, are systems that differentiate salaries based on job classification. Sometimes called “market-based pay”, such systems place a premium on harder-to-fill positions, such as special education or math. Teachers in these categories may start off with a higher salary, have a potential to make higher earnings during their career, or both.

A school district may consciously decide to offer more money for a qualified advanced physics instructor than for a physical education teacher, because the former is harder to come by and the degree is harder to get. Varied compensation creates an easier way to attract the talent necessary to best serve kids. We all want the best teachers possible, and the current pay system doesn’t create the flexibility needed to attract some of that talent.

Thus, local leaders can send signals to education schools that more skilled teachers of a certain kind are needed, but fewer of others. Those signals are sent through prices.

To what extent either performance-based or market-based compensation are on the table, there is a lot of room to improve the pay system in Jeffco. Many years of conversations and an ongoing federal pilot program have not led the district substantially closer to a 21st century pay system.

Let’s elevate the vision. Let’s focus the conversation. Let’s work toward greater student success tomorrow by rethinking educator compensation today.