Voices in Education

Pushing the Envelope on Teacher Pay
President Obama is bringing change to Washington, D.C. Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, support the idea of merit pay for teachers and have cited Denver’s ProComp (Professional Compensation Plan) as a good example of working with the teachers unions, not imposing plans upon them.

So, what lies ahead for innovative teacher compensation plans? Probably a lot of activity, and hopefully some new proposals that push the concept forward. Some of that is likely to be pushed by federal money (the Teacher Incentive Fund) and support, while other ideas will be springing up from the districts and states.

Michelle Rhee’s teacher pay proposal in DC certainly pushes, perhaps breaks, the envelope. Under that proposal, some teachers would voluntarily trade tenure protection for the potential of much, much higher earned salaries for performance. But, unless this post is outdated when you read it, that proposal is still a proposal, not a policy—not a minor point—pay plans have to be feasible and implemented to, you know, work.

And, unfortunately, we don’t yet know whether merit pay plans really “work” - there isn’t much evidence, so far, that paying teachers more for results leads to better results. And there are some reasons from prior literature and from private sector examples to be cautious.

So, why put in so much effort? One easy answer is that we know that paying teachers based only upon the inputs of the single salary schedule - graduate degrees and years of service - has almost no relationship to student achievement, so it is hard to do worse than the current predominant pay system. Second, more generally, we don’t have lots of firm evidence about “what else works” to raise test scores, or some of the things we do know that work are quite expensive, like reduced class sizes in early years.

The main reason to experiment with plans like ProComp is that they change the culture that comes from paying all similarly-situated teachers the same. Not only does ProComp reward teachers for demonstrated student achievement, but it also differentiates pay based upon market factors and the challenges of working with more at-risk kids. This moves teacher pay towards a more professionalized approach, and once these plans are in effect, it will likely be difficult to reverse them. ProComp and other merit plans may or may not drive student achievement—I hope they do—but even if they don’t, they have other benefits.

We also don’t know precisely how to measure and reward good teaching. Lots of good work is taking place, and student longitudinal growth models are improving, but even under the best scenarios, there is no “optimal” pay plan. ProComp has the advantage of being a mixed approach that rewards teachers for advancement of student achievement and growth along various measures, their own demonstrated improvement of knowledge and skills, and market factors. While specific teachers might not like or agree with one or more of the measures, there is a portfolio of options within which to build their salary.

Three years from its start, more than half of Denver teachers are enrolled in ProComp, which is ahead of projections. As per previous agreement to provide flexibility, ProComp was revised in summer 2008, with some contentious battles between the district administration and the teachers unions, to provide more money for market factors and demonstrated achievement.

ProComp has been attacked from both the “left,” which opposes merit pay on principle, and the “right,” which views it as not tying enough salary to one-time bonuses based upon student outcomes. This is not surprising, since ProComp is both a political compromise, so that teachers unions would support it, and a programmatic compromise that doesn’t suggest one single best way to measures teachers’ performance. The reality is that ProComp is one of the only teacher pay plans that really moves teacher pay away from the traditional salary schedule towards a more complex mix (most other plans are bonuses on top of the single salary schedule).

ProComp, with its flaws, creates a new way to think about teacher compensation that ultimately will help change the culture of teaching and education. That is why the Obama administration should support and encourage more change of this type.

About the Author: Paul Teske is Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver. He is co-author of Pay-for-Performance Teacher Compensation, and is presently part of a team starting to evaluate ProComp.