A conference held at USC to discuss new models of teacher compensation has laid the groundwork for future collaborations between K-12 school district officials and union officials, according to USC Rossier School of Education professor Dominic Brewer.
“By beginning a dialogue between school board members, district administrators and teacher union representatives, the hope is that new innovative teacher compensation schemes can be developed in California,” Brewer said. “A high-quality teacher is critical for student success and we need to revisit whether the way we pay teachers really attracts the best into the profession or encourages those that do become teachers to stay or teach where they are most needed.”
The March 31 event, “Learning About New Forms of Teacher Compensation”, was sponsored by the Full Circle Fund and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Brewer serves as co-director of PACE – a research center based at USC, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford that seeks to help California policymakers on education issues.
The conference brought together almost 200 school union members and school administrators to learn how other districts around the country are redefining teacher compensation, which traditionally has been based more on seniority.
Ideas brought up by speakers included providing extra compensation to teachers who work in challenging schools and reducing or eliminating compensation for teachers who pursue higher degrees.
Brad Jupp, senior academic policy adviser at Denver Public Schools, told the attendees that drastic change can cause visceral reactions, but that often the results are less frightening than the reality.
At the Denver district, union members and school districts officials agreed in 1999 to create a system for accomplishment-based compensation for teachers called the ProComp program. This involved creating a fund of $25 million that came from a voter-approved additional property tax. The program, he said, has continued to evolve over the years with input from teachers and administrators.
“When we started, there were many predictions of all these horrible things – that teachers would hoard their secrets and not share anymore – and that principals would give the money to people they liked and take money from those they didn’t like,” he said. “But that didn’t happen, so we learned that the worst things don’t happen.”
Several conference attendees expressed their concern that the expectations raised by more standardized evaluations may not take into account the diverse challenges that certain schools face in areas with high poverty rates, non-English language learners and low parental involvement.
Dan Katzir, managing director of the Broad Foundation, said that the reason why changes are needed is that the current model of teacher compensation doesn’t provide enough incentives to reward teachers for student learning results.
He pointed out that some surveys indicate that early to mid-career teachers are 10 times more likely to leave districts than later-career teachers. He suggested that merit-pay style programs might attract more high-qualified teacher candidates or motivate other younger teachers to stay and improve even more.
Katzir noted that “performance-based evaluations” raises delicate issues of fairness, transparency and accountability, which need to be addressed in order for others to see the inherent potentials in such systemic overhauls.
Conference breakout sessions throughout the day included discussions of teacher compensation reform that has taken place in school districts in Minneapolis, Austin and New York City. The latter school district recently started a program in which participating schools are given progress reports based on school environment, student performance, student progress and extra responsibilities. Each school’s report card grade is based on improvements.
The New York City program was a compromise between union members, who were wary about the idea of linking merit pay to performance, and school district administrators, who wanted to have performance more directly linked to classrooms and teachers. The two sides eventually agreed to have the program based according to overall school performance with allocations decided at the school level by a committee of school administrators and union officials.
“The fact that this was a school-wide focus absolutely makes it much more acceptable to the union because it encourages the collaboration and community that is needed for a school to succeed,” said Susan Amlung, director of policy research with the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. “Unions are not an obstacle to reform when teachers are given a voice in shaping it, operating it and implementing it.”