howardnlby Howard Stephenson

One of the most common complaints, and most common reasons more of the best teachers don’t stay in public education, is the age-old lock-step salary schedule used by just about every school district in the country. In this system, the way teachers move up in compensation is either through longevity, obtaining more college credits, or becoming administrators. How well they teach has not affected their compensation. There hasn’t really been any financial recognition for those who do the best job teaching students.

On top of this, it has been very difficult to get rid of teachers who do a poor job teaching kids. Consequently, poor teachers get rewarded as much as good teachers and every teacher knows if they can just last another year or get another college credit, they can earn more. In the past, protecting this compensation system has been a major focus of the teacher unions. After all, differential pay would undermine the very purpose of the union.

The first chink in the armor of lock-step salaries in Utah was passage of legislation five years ago which provided signing bonuses for teachers in short supply including math and science teachers. The legislation was passed with opposition from the UEA teacher union but when the legislature pulled its funding as a result of the recent economic downturn the UEA was the first group to call for its continuation. They reasoned that because the bonuses did not affect the steps and lanes in the various district salary schedules, it was an appropriate differentiation in compensation. I believe too, the union was sincerely concerned about the inability of school districts to attract and retain qualified math and science teachers who otherwise could make more money in the private sector.

This year the legislature has restored the funding for signing bonuses for math, science, information technology, and special education.

The Worm Has Turned: True Results-Based Pay

Teacher pay for performance was something I began pushing 13 years ago when first elected to the Utah State Senate. But we made little headway due to powerful opposition from the government education community, including school board members and administrators. They said it was too difficult to evaluate what effect teaching had on student performance because there were so many uncontrollable factors which affected student performance including socioeconomic, ethnic, and parent involvement differences.

But now Governor Huntsman’s Student Achievement Working Group has proposed true pay for performance. Led by Toni Turk, Mayor of Blanding and Federal Programs Coordinator for San Juan School District, the Finance and Funding sub-group is proposing a bonus structure which would reward the best teachers based on the academic gains in their classes. Teachers would receive no additional compensation for students who make one year of academic growth in basic core subjects. But for students whose gains are greater than one year’s growth, teachers would receive a bonus of as much as 30% of their regular salaries. This would be reduced by any student performance less than one-year’s gain.

With the current lock-step salary schedule, teachers naturally migrate away from the most difficult schools because there is no incentive to teach struggling students over easier-to-teach students.

Mr. Turk’s leadership as a respected public educator in selling this idea cannot be overstated. He brought attention to significant research which showed marked student improvement in the few school systems across the country which have already employed pay-for-performance. He also shared a specific example of a master teacher in San Juan District whose teaching efforts in a highly impacted, low-scoring school resulted in remarkable gains in student achievement.

A book Mr. Turk said is worth reading, and supports merit pay for teachers is Paying Teachers for What they Know and Do – New and Smarter Compensation Strategies to Improve Schools, by Allan Odden and Carolyn Kelley. Surprisingly, the book has an endorsement by Bob Chase, past President of the National Education Association.

Last week I presented this pay-for-performance idea to a Public Education Conference which included a few hundred Utah education leaders. I expected the usual opposition and a lot of reasons why pay for performance wouldn’t work. I was surprised by the generally positive reaction. Fully two dozen persons approached me following my presentation, excitedly affirming the merits of merit pay. Many of these were district superintendents and school board members. State School Board president Kim Burningham, a former legislator and retired school teacher surprised me when he interrupted my interview with a newspaper reporter and excitedly agreed with the merit pay proposal, saying the time has come. This is a person who has been quite loyal to the union’s party line and who, ten years ago, would have been expected to lead the charge against pay for performance.

I know this initial support could change, but my surprise at the support for merit pay from Utah government educators is a lot like the world’s surprise when the Berlin wall came down without a shot being fired. Victor Hugo was right when he said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

The Mexican Hat Experiment

Mexican Hat Elementary has been one of Jan Juan School District’s chronically lowest performing elementary schools. This remote campus of approximately 200 students (98% Native Americans) is impacted by multiple at-risk factors frequently associated with low student achievement including 97% free or reduced lunch, 40% McKinney Homeless, 84% English Language Learners. Just 7% of the first grade students were at benchmark on the DIBELS reading assessment in 2004 while 90% of the Monticello Elementary first grade students were at Benchmark.

The School District asked Colleen Pehrson, a recent Teacher of the Year, to teach the Mexican Hat first grade class. She agreed to do this for a $10,000 bonus plus a travel stipend of $9,000 due to a 150 mile daily round-trip which she did daily.

At the end of the 2005 school year, 80% of the Mexican Hat first graders were at Benchmark in the DIBELS reading assessment while Monticello’s first grade students had dropped to 61%.

This experiment suggests that an experienced, quality teacher with high expectations can overcome many of the at-risk factors that have traditionally been obstacles to learning.