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Teacher Pay – Current Model Definitely Outdated

The first step towards merit pay is to begin paying teachers according to what research has already proven to be critical.

Research indicates that the two most effective correlates of higher student achievement are the value a family places on education and the quality of instruction that children receive.

In simple terms, students from homes that value education are very successful in school even when they receive average or below average instruction. But at the same time, the positive impact associated with quality instruction can be dramatic with the effect most notable for minority children and those from less affluent families.

Moving forward, it is essential that education place greater emphasis on teacher effectiveness. Doing so will require an entirely new approach to paying teachers.

As states and local communities grapple with funding shortfalls, negotiating teacher contracts will have to be a place that government officials and school board officials look to determine bang for buck. With as much as 80% of a school district’s expenses being attributed to total salaries, pay for those working in education has to be carefully examined.

Teacher and student on a lesson.The push for merit pay is now on though most teachers in the trenches still do not readily accept it. But at a minimum, any move towards pay for performance should begin by addressing current payment practices that are inconsistent with research.

Current Model

Those outside the field of education can’t quite understand why every fifth year teacher in a school district earns the same pay as every other fifth year teacher irrespective of responsibilities and assignment. But that is standard operating procedure in most school districts.

It is true whether or not a person teaches at the elementary or secondary level. It is true regardless of teaching assignment and responsibilities at each level. An elementary classroom teacher responsible for all of each student’s academic subject instruction receives the same pay as the elementary art, music or physical education teacher.

Likewise every high school teacher, whether it is in English, math, science or physical education, receives the same pay and does so despite the number of different preparations he or she may face, the number of students they are assigned, and the amount of grading that must take place outside the classroom. Perhaps even more astonishingly, a teacher certified to teach multiple subject areas receives no additional pay despite his or her ability to provide flexibility in teaching assignments.

Instead, pay differentials are based on just two fundamental elements. First a set of salary scales is created and a teacher moves along the scale as he or she gains teaching experience. In most cases, a second year teacher earns more than a first year, a third year teacher more than a second, etc., though in a few cases these scales are paired, first and second year teachers earning one salary, third and fourth another, or some variation.

Second, multiple salary scales are created with different base pay and increments for further study. Most schools have a pay scale for teachers with 30 credits beyond a bachelor’s, another scale for the attainment of a master’s degree, and even higher scales for those having furthered those academic credentials by attaining a Certificate of Advanced Study (CAS) or doctorate, etc. One final bonus payment has been negotiated in many districts for those teachers holding national board certification.

Rethinking the General Master’s Degree

When America is considered as a whole, school systems pay an additional $8.6 billion in wages to those teachers holding a master’s degree. However, a decade of research has demonstrated that this money is for the most part poorly spent.

In a recent speech at an American Enterprise Institute forum, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, essentially called the idea of rewarding teachers for a achieving a masters degree a waste of taxpayer money. The reason is that there is little evidence to show that a teacher holding a master’s degree significantly impacts the achievement of his or her students over that of a teacher with just a bachelor’s degree.

In addition, the concept of a 15 or 20-year step contract whereby a teacher gains additional pay for each year of experience is not necessarily associated with teacher effectiveness. Data reflects improved teacher effectiveness can be substantial over the first few years but that in most cases there is a plateau effect that varies from teacher to teacher.

But these two ways of paying teachers are so ingrained that most people consider them almost untouchable. Billionaire Bill Gates, a man who has given a great deal of his accumulated fortune to grants to improve education calls the discussion of changing teacher pay is analogous to kicking a beehive. Others have said the idea of changing teacher pay is as controversial and unpopular as cutting chocolate milk from the school cafeteria menu.

The Need for a Revamped System

While the system demands changes, it is important to note that teacher effectiveness is correlated in certain instances with these basic elements already in place. Specific aspects do correlate with teacher certification, academic credentials, and experience. Current research reveals:

iStock_000004218407XSmallTraditional certification is a worthy concept especially when discussing a teacher delivering specific subject matter. Traditional certification programs require successful completion of a university-based teacher preparation program that meets state specifications and the passing of a state licensure examination.

Most importantly, certification in the particular subject or subjects being taught correlates with student success especially at the middle and high school levels. Studies have found that subject-area certification in mathematics for secondary teachers is associated with higher student performance in the subject and that students in an English class are better off being taught by a teacher who is certified in English.

Those schools paying additional funds for teachers who have earned National Board Certification appear to have taken a positive step. Research indicates that students taught by National Board Certified teachers do score higher on standardized tests of reading and mathematics when compared to students of similar ability that are taught by teachers who are not Board certified. But at the same time, National Board-certified teachers tend to disproportionately teach more advantaged students, assignments that could account for the additional success of board certified teachers.

In addition to certification in the field that he or she teaches, a degree in the subject being taught also matters. Simply stated, teachers must have a deep understanding of the subject matter they are assigned to teach and thus must have a degree in the subjects assigned.

It is interesting to note this is the one area where an advanced degree does in fact matter. In other words, earning an advanced degree in the specific subject area does correlate with increases in student achievement while a general master’s degree does not.

What seems to matter is the intellectual capacity of the individual including strong SAT or ACT scores along with a sound academic record at a selective college.

Two other key criteria include scores on the teacher assessment exams, whether it is the Praxis or other standardized test and some basic classroom teaching experience. Data reflects that students of teachers with four or more years of experience demonstrate greater achievement.

Some Basic Changes

As part of a move towards hiring the best and the brightest, it is time that school boards eliminate the lock step pay concept and replace it with a flexible approach. For example, the data clearly indicates that school districts need the flexibility to pay new teachers varying salaries based upon specific levels of academic achievement on nationalized tests, their college transcripts and the scores attained on the state required assessment. Boards need to be able to take concrete steps to find qualified teachers for the specialty subjects.

Likewise, simple step schedules must also be eliminated that provide pay differentials for advanced degrees and additional certifications unless such credentials are associated with greater student achievement. That means teachers with different assignments could see varied pay depending on that assignment as well as the credentials they have earned.

Lastly, contracts must begin to reflect the workload assigned to an individual teacher. Simply stated, not all teaching positions carry the same workload. It is time that pay differentials based on the responsibilities associated with a specific position are established that are dependent on number of students assigned, number of subjects to prepare for, and corresponding correcting time spent outside the school day.


1 NancyEH { 11.30.10 at 12:40 pm }

In what jobs do people who have been there the same amount of time NOT earn the same amount? I keep reading that merit pay is used in all fields except education, but have no first-hand knowledge that it’s true. What do the evaluation instruments used in those fields look like?

2 Bryan { 12.08.10 at 12:42 pm }

Can you cite the studies from which your conclusions were drawn? I’d be interested in reading their methodologies. For example, from what I’ve found, it seems like the SAT score studies dealt specifically with math and reading tests – i.e., I don’t see any necessary connection to foreign language or social studies or science instruction.

3 amabel { 01.03.11 at 4:41 pm }

I agree with the proposed ideas of this author. It has always been my belief that although teaching is considered the ‘noble profession’, and hence not money driven – pecuniary compensation is still a great motivator. Besides those who strive to improve their skills in teaching and hence the achievement results of their students should be rewarded. Why should teachers who show no interest in improving themselves for their students be compensated equally or receive increments?

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