It's Time to Change the Way We Pay Teachers

I think merit pay and teacher salary reform may be some of those buzzwords that start making some educators want to cuss and throw their hummus and veggie (or in my case, nacho cheese combos and coffee) lunch across the room. Even more generally, people get terribly vitriolic when money comes into the ed reform conversation.

After the Combos have been tossed, there are often cliches like “you know, throwing money at this isn’t going to solve it.” Or, on another note, they scream about how many hours teachers work and how they deserve huge fat paychecks. Both of these talking head rhetorical rabbit trails make me equally annoyed.

 In short, I have at least some understanding that people care about their paychecks. They get a little uneasy when blowhards from a crappy education blog start threatening the way they get their raise every year. I may have to step on a few people’s toes, but bear with me.

Most public schools reward teachers for a few simple things. We generally give money to the teachers with the advanced degrees, certifications, and experience. So if you have a Master’s Degree and have been teaching for 20 years, you are most likely collecting close to the max paycheck that your district offers to teachers. If you’re lucky, that number is pushing 6 figures. If you are unlucky, and live in Oklahoma, your paycheck is about half of that.

 So teachers progress on the pay scale in a way that is almost entirely disconnected from their performance. If you don’t suck, and you survive another year, our system rewards you.

One would hope that this is based in some science. We could assume that there is some research that says that teachers are better when they have Master's Degrees and years of experience.

The problem is that the research isn’t completely clear on this. Good teaching isn’t neatly correlated with education or experience. I’ve been teaching for 8 years, and there is no evidence to show that I should be much better than a third year teacher, or that someone with 20 years of teaching experience should be any better than me. I also have a Master’s Degree, so I get a few extra thousand bucks on my salary, but there is not much research to support that my degree will lead to more of my students learning. To be fair, there is significant evidence that teachers improve in the first few years, but then even those  “marginal” gains slow significantly.

Here is where we should talk about better, and more researched, ways to pay teachers. And this is also where I can feel some folks and the education unions starting to throw their hummus at me. We are a lot better at measuring good teaching then we were 20 years ago. The chorus of counter-arguments will start talking here about biased observations, the rising stakes of standardized tests, and how much worse all of that would get if we decided to tie pay to performance.

And if my argument was simply that we need to give teachers paychecks based on test scores, the hummus would be warranted. Our pay, however, should be much more closely tied to evaluation and accountability. Teachers should be evaluated primarily on whether students are learning in their class.

Not on how we perform the times that principals in our rooms.

Not on how many times we call home or how many word walls we have or how clearly our learning objective is communicated.  

And certainly not on any of the even more subjective measures that may shade our current observation and evaluation system.

There are better ways, and students need to be at the center of our measures.

Each year in my district, students fill out sophisticated surveys that provide teachers with detailed and meaningful feedback about the class. Sure, students complain and tell teachers that they don’t take it seriously. But somehow this report always speaks real truths about my instruction and classroom that helps me self-assess and grow. Student experience should absolutely be part of the way that we are evaluated. I think some fear that this becomes a popularity contest, but assuming our students can’t answer questions about their class and learning honestly shows the alarmingly low expectations in that argument.  

We shouldn't throw out observations entirely, but we should make them meaningful and embedded in our instructional growth plans. They should be carried out by peers, master teachers, students, and principals with each person or group watching for areas within their own expertise. In other words, a principal with a math background shouldn’t evaluate an English Teacher’s content knowledge, and a teachers should not try to speak to the way students are feeling in the classroom. This kind of observation should be evaluative, but should also help us get better.

And finally, we have to measure the growth of our students and become more comfortable with intelligent conversations about Value Added Measures (VAM). Many states, including Pennsylvania, use sophisticated algorithms that project student growth over time. When students consistently outperform those projections in one teacher’s class, that teacher should be rewarded. This certainly does not mean that our systems are perfect, but they are good enough to merit more investment. And if value-added is done well, and not confused with achievement, then It needs to be part of our personal evaluations.

IF students are feeling safe and happy in your classroom, they feel challenged and engaged, other professionals are challenging you and informing your work, and your students are growing in their knowledge and ability, THEN you should be paid like the leading professional that you are. That is, however, a big IF/THEN statement that we are not currently honoring. That kind of pay scale would attract more talented and motivated people to teaching, inspire all the innovative folks that are already teaching, and keep the general public from thinking we are all a bunch of worksheet-making blowhards who drink Corona in Cancun all summer long.

We need to pay good teachers enough that they want to stay in the classroom. And the other guys? We need to pay them less. They are making all of us look bad.