Right vote cast on teacher pay

By Stephen Bowen | Apr 17, 2009

Prospects for a meaningful reform of Maine’s schools improved considerably last week after the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs cast a unanimous vote to kill LD 817, a bill that would have outlawed performance-based compensation for teachers and school administrators.

LD 817 was to have prohibited the use of any measurable data on teacher or student performance in the determination of teacher pay. This flies in the face of nationwide efforts, led by President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to place more and more emphasis on proven best practices and on rewarding teachers and administrators who adopt instructional strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on student outcomes.

In a clear indication of the broad support this reform concept has gained, the recent federal stimulus bill, signed by President Obama and supported by Democrats in Congress, allocates $200 million to the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which “supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools.” Had Rep. Bolduc’s bill passed, school districts in Maine would have been forbidden to access these federal funds.

Why is performance-based pay important?

For decades, nearly every public school teacher in the nation has been paid according to a so-called “single salary schedule.” Under such a system, teachers with similar experience and level of education are paid the same. Such systems have come under increasing criticism in recent years, however. A number of studies have found that the factors that determine teacher pay under the salary schedule system, such as longevity and level of education, have little or no impact on teacher effectiveness or student outcomes. In fact, studies have concluded that these salary systems work against quality teaching because they do not encourage the attainment of teaching skills more directly related to student outcomes, do not encourage professional growth and leadership, and do not attract top students into the teaching profession.

In response to these concerns, school districts across the nation have developed alternative compensation models that base teacher and administrator pay, at least in part, on student outcomes. Some pay systems provide incentives for teachers to acquire skills that have been demonstrated to improve student achievement, while others use bonuses tied to increases in student achievement, as indicated by multiple assessments, in order to encourage teachers to focus on best practices.

Where they have been tried, such pay systems have been shown to boost student outcomes. A recent study in Arkansas, for instance, found that “students whose teachers were eligible for performance pay made substantially larger test score gains in math, reading and language” than students of teachers who were ineligible for bonuses. A 2007 review of federal school performance data from multiple states found much the same result.

Is it impossible, as Rep. Bolduc suggested in his testimony, to fairly assess teacher quality? It is challenging to be sure, but performance-based systems already in place feature complex, standards-based teacher evaluation systems. In a recent speech, President Obama applauded the work of a number of South Carolina school districts that have adopted the Teacher Advancement Program, a project of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. This innovative system combines a performance-based compensation element with a thorough teacher evaluation system that uses multiple classroom-based assessments of teachers by trained evaluators. Data collected from such evaluations is used to tailor teacher training opportunities to meet the needs of both teachers and students alike.

Could districts impose an unfair performance-pay system on Maine teachers against their will? Absolutely not. Maine is a collective bargaining state, which means that teachers are allowed to negotiate the terms of their wages and working conditions, and must approve any change to the terms by which they are compensated for the important work they do. Rep. Bolduc’s bill was not only wrong, but unnecessary.

Last fall, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the public policy research organization where I work, hosted a day-long conference on performance-based teacher pay. It drew over 100 attendees from 40 Maine school districts, all of whom were interested in learning whether the kinds of innovative pay systems being implemented elsewhere would work here in Maine. Teachers who attended were especially interested, given the extent to which teacher salaries in Maine trail the national average.

In his testimony, Rep. Bolduc suggested that these kinds of complex teacher pay systems “were too complicated to let local school departments figure it out.” Luckily the Education Committee disagreed with this preposterous assertion and defeated his bill by a unanimous vote.

As a consequence, school districts in Maine, working in cooperation with teachers, will be able to experiment with innovative new pay models. As state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said in her testimony against Rep. Bolduc’s bill, national research has “consistently proven the critical importance of the quality of the teacher in the classroom to student achievement and success in school.”

Developing modern pay systems that more adequately recognize the critical role that teachers play in the education system should be a major effort across Maine in the years to come.
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