Teacher quality under the microscope

Higher salaries for high-need subjects

Along with merit pay, Duncan also has touted the idea of providing incentives for high-quality teachers to teach in underserved schools, as well as rewarding teachers in math, science, and other “high-need” fields that remain in their subjects for a number of years.

The National Center on Performance Incentives has studied the impact of TEEG–a pay-for-performance program in Texas that targets high-poverty, high-performing districts–and concluded that awards of $3,000, on average, reduced the predicted turnover rate to less than a quarter of the rate that was expected before the program was introduced.

Another estimate comes from SUNY-Albany researcher Donald Boyd, using data from New York City schools. He reported it would be necessary to “pay teachers an additional $2,900 to induce them to teach in a classroom with a 25-percentage-point increase in the proportion of minority students, but only an additional $350 to teach in a classroom with a 25-percentage-point increase in the proportion of students receiving free or reduced lunch.”

A charter school in New York City’s Washington Heights, called the Equity Project, will open in September, paying teachers $125,000 a year–twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries.

The school marks the biggest experiment yet as to whether the promise of higher pay can lead to better teaching. Teachers at the school also will be eligible for bonuses based on school-wide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.

The school’s leaders believe that talented teachers, not technology or smaller class sizes, create success. Teachers so far include an accomplished violinist who uses neuroscience lessons during her music classes, two teachers with Ivy League degrees, and a phys ed teacher who used to work as Kobe Bryant’s personal trainer.

The Equity Project will open with 120 fifth graders chosen this past spring in a lottery that gave preference to children from the neighborhood and to low academic performers. It will grow to 580 children in grades five though eight, with 28 teachers.

The school will use public money for everything but its building. Teachers will be responsible for duties usually given to assistant principals (there are none), and other positions which will not be filled. There will be no deans, substitute teachers, or teacher coaches. Teachers will work longer hours and more days, and they each will have around 30 students. They will not have the same retirement benefits as members of the city’s teacher’s union; they also can be fired at will.

“Teacher efficacy is the single most effective component [to] increased student achievement, outside of the students taking ownership of their own learning,” said Hirsch. “However, extremely high salaries might help recruit teachers with high efficacy, but it won’t guarantee it.”

“Studies nationally have shown that, statistically [speaking], salary is not correlated with student success or achievement,” said Liebman, “so I am not sure whether this idea has merit or not.”

According to CAP, additional evidence on the effectiveness of merit pay programs will be available beginning in 2011 from the National Center on Performance Incentives, which received a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to study the effectiveness of performance incentives.

One study will employ a randomized experimental design to assess the causal impact of a pilot program in Nashville public schools. The program allows math teachers to earn bonuses of up to $15,000 per year, conditional on their students’ gains on state exams.

“Successful implementation of pay-for-performance models will require an ongoing dialog with all members of the education community to arrive at a solution that best serves the nation’s students,” said Randy Collins, AASA president and superintendent in Waterford, Conn.

“At this point, there are more questions than answers in the research on performance pay,” said CAP, “but existing research findings suggest that the strategy holds promise for improving student achievement. There is less information about the impact on teacher recruitment and retention.”

For its part, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)–the nation’s second largest teachers union, behind the National Educational Association (NEA)–acknowledges the traditional single-salary schedule for teachers has shortcomings. The group “believes it is time to explore viable, fair, and educationally sound teacher compensation options that will raise salaries while contributing to efforts already under way to ensure high-quality, well-prepared teachers for all students.”

The AFT is encouraging its local unions to explore various teacher compensation systems based on their local conditions, though it does not support merit-pay systems based on individual test scores. According to the AFT, a professional teacher compensation system could include financial incentives to teachers who acquire additional knowledge and skills, or who agree to teach in low-performing or hard-to-staff schools. Such compensation proposals also could include increased pay for school-wide improvement, mentoring new and veteran teachers, and teaching in high-need areas, the group said.

The NEA did not respond to interview requests before press time.


Center for American Progress

Institute of Education Sciences

American Association of School Administrators

Economic Policy Institute

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Stimulating Achievement resource center. Learn how to make wise spending decisions and keep track of school needs as stimulus funds become available. Go to: Stimulating Achievement