by Diane Pan

Thinking Differently About Teacher Pay

We are challenged to create new pay systems that address policy priorities based on our best information about how teachers are paid. States are asking more from their teachers in terms of content expertise, facility with new instructional standards, and better results for low-performing students. Parents, educators, and researchers are realizing the importance of good teachers in student learning. National and state education policies are emphasizing teacher skill and knowledge in addition to traditional credentials.

Paying teachers is a complex task that must take into account such factors as differences in local or regional economies, the needs of schools with low-income students, and the competencies and credentials of the teacher pool. These days paying teachers a fair, equitable wage is important but is only part of the bigger picture.

What Do Experts Say About Teacher Pay Systems?

In a recent discussion with key state policymakers in our region, we identified a number of ways they are addressing teacher compensation policy in their states. They described the following:

  • Raising overall teacher salaries
  • Providing incentives to teachers in small schools and schools with high percentages of low-income children
  • Experimenting with alternative pay systems

“We must see pay strategically and ensure that we think of teacher compensation as a system, i.e., with pay and supports for the whole teacher system.”
-Dr. Anthony Milanowski

How can states and school districts continue to advance their thinking about teacher pay and integrate pay systems into overall school improvement? We asked Dr. Anthony Milanowski, a well-known researcher in the field of teacher compensation, this question. He explained that “we must see pay strategically and ensure that we think of teacher compensation as a system, i.e., with pay and supports for the whole teacher system.”

Additionally, Milanowski emphasized that teacher compensation programs should be aimed at need. A systematic process for identifying needs is essential. States and schools must find ways to assess teacher recruitment and retention, teacher skill levels, and alignment between educational goals and what is expected of teachers.

Designing teacher pay systems is not simple and, unfortunately, not much information can be found to get states and districts started. Limited guidance from existing research is available to demonstrate what financial incentives work to improve the quality of teachers.

Research conducted by Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin (2001) in Texas indicates that financial incentives need to be significant to change staffing patterns. Yet, it is still unclear exactly how much is enough in order to change current practices.

Models of new compensation programs do exist, such as the Teacher Advancement Program, New Mexico’s Three-Tiered Licensure System, and Denver’s ProComp (see “Examples of Teacher Compensation Programs”). These programs provide excellent examples of the rationale, implementation strategies, and evaluation that must be part of new pay systems.

Making New Pay Systems a Reality

New teacher pay programs generally mean finding new sources of funds for salary increases or targeted incentive pay. The amount of funds can be substantial, especially with regard to across-the-board pay raises. It will be important for states to find new monies or reallocate existing dollars. Fortunately, many compensation programs can be phased in across a number of years, spreading the financial burden over time.

Cost-benefit studies should be included as part of any new pay system to track whether the strategies are effective in improving teaching and learning. Also, it is important to remember that money alone can’t increase student achievement. Although teacher pay can motivate teachers in certain ways, other supports must also be available: professional development, evaluation, mentoring, leadership, and a suitable work environment.

The hard work of examining current pay policies and practices and experimenting with new ones will require the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders. Teachers, state policymakers, district administrators, school boards, and parents all have a responsibility for improving the success of our children and investing our salary dollars wisely.

Image of several hands coming together in a group to symbolize teamwork.

Next Page: Examples of Teacher Compensation Programs

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 19, February 2006, Getting Smart About Teacher Pay