Scrapping the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule. . .

That’s the title of a relatively interesting article written by Jacob Vigdor, an associate professor of policy studies and economics at Duke University that was recently run in Education Next—the journal of the Hoover Institution.

Arguing that the current salary schedule in education is flawed because it rewards teachers for credentials that are not tied to increased performance and because it drives new teachers—who struggle for years to reach peak earning potential—away from the profession, Vigdor makes a few points that I think are legitimate.

First and foremost, Vigdor’s assertion that additional degrees don’t necessarily translate into increased performance is one that I wholeheartedly embrace.  When blanket rewards are given for life to teachers who work through master’s or doctoral studies, taxpayer dollars are wasted—and that’s coming from a guy who earns a 10% stipend on his salary each year for a master’s degree!

How could I argue against rewarding teachers for advanced degrees?

Easy—the information that I learned in my “Advanced Teaching” program from 1992-1997 is hardly advanced today!  Not only have children changed, requiring me to constantly tailor my instructional practices, the tools for teaching have changed (I didn’t have Internet access in my first three classrooms, people—and I’m not that old!), and the outcomes of education have changed.  In the early ’90s, there were still industry jobs and assembly lines for struggling students to fall back on.

That translates into a rather astonishing admission:  My master’s degree means little to me today, and yet I’ll be rewarded for it for the next fifteen years that I spend in a classroom.

As a teacher, I’m thankful—I couldn’t remain in the classroom without that 10% supplement to my already low compared to my peers in other professions salary.  As a professional, I’m ashamed because I know that I’m being rewarded for something that has little impact on my teaching today.

As a taxpayer, I’m just plain peeved!

I also like Vigdor’s desire to front-load teacher salaries and completely agree that teachers reach their peak performance within the first 5-10 years of their careers.  To rapidly increase salaries early in a career will definitely help with recruiting and retaining teachers, simply because their compensation will finally reflect their growth in performance and put them on equal footing with peers—both in the schoolhouse and beyond.

I can’t tell you how discouraging the last 10 years have been for me professionally because I’ve invested my whole self into improving as a practitioner, and yet I’ve watched my salary creep up by two or three hundred dollars a year—-while teachers that who had been working in classrooms since I was born were racking in several thousand dollars more than me each year simply because they were older than I was.

Maddening.  Made me want to quit more than once.  (Still makes me want to quit, actually!)

But Vigdor’s plans—like nearly every other proposal that I’ve ever read to change teacher compensation—have a handful of very obvious flaws.  First and foremost, Vigdor bases all increases in compensation on increased scores on standardized tests.  Consider this quote:

So now we have some basic principles on which to build a better model: Reward characteristics associated with greater effectiveness; do not reward those that have no evidence linking them to effectiveness. To launch the system, all we need to do is pin down the increment of compensation for a given increase in effectiveness. There are several ways to do this, but let’s consider just one. Suppose that we reward a characteristic associated with an improvement in test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation with a 1 percent increase in salary.

Wow, Jacob—you make it sound so easy!

There are dozens of problems with tying teacher compensation to standardized test results.  I’ve written about them time and again.  On a philosophical level, they include a narrowing of the curriculum that produces misleading results and a constant drift away from the kinds of teaching that students most need in order to succeed in an increasingly complex world driven by knowledge creation.

On a practical level, what are we going to do about the 60-80% of teachers in any school who don’t teach a tested subject?—-or to school professionals beyond the classroom like guidance counselors and media specialists?  The way I facetiously see it, there are two options:

    1. Develop more tests for more subjects to be given to more kids over the course of more years in their school careers—-which will wipe out any savings that states and districts might find in your proposal, as well as the joy out of life for 5 year olds who will be drilled and killed from day one.
    2. Only give pay raises to teachers of tested subjects.  Heck, let’s get rid of any subject in a school that we can’t test.

(It’s kind of frightening to consider where thinking like Jake’s can land us, isn’t it?  Gotta love economists.  The only thing that matters are numbers to those guys.)

My second beef with Vigdor’s plans is the swipe that he takes at National Board Certification as a semi-useless tool for identifying accomplished teachers and a waste of cash.  He writes:

To a large extent, the jury is still out on the importance of NBPTS certification. Studies have shown that teachers nominated for this certification have a legacy of superior classroom performance, but there is less evidence that the process of certification actually improves their performance.

I guess it is only natural for me to support National Board certification—after all, I earned certification in 1997 (my third year of teaching) and have been collecting a 12% salary stipend from the state of North Carolina ever since.

But I also support National Board certification as a taxpayer, too.

You see, teachers who work through the certification process are forced to spend a year reflecting on their practice.  They document the impact of their instruction on students, videotape their lessons, and articulate the connections between the choices that they make and the children that they teach.

Oh yeah, they also take a big ol’ exam to gauge their mastery of the content that they teach AND their certificate expires after 10 years, at which time they must document the impact of their work on student achievement in their schools, districts and states over the course of their entire license cycle in order to earn recertification.

I call that a fail-safe system, protecting the investment that a state is willing to make into a teacher who works through certification.

Not only is the process rigorous (my initial portfolio was nearly 400 pages long and took me about 300 hours to create), it is ongoing.  Unlike my master’s degree—which I set aside as soon as I was finished with my last blue book, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve as a teacher because I know that I need to in order to recertify!

Like many critics of the current pay scale, Jake seems to suggest that revising teacher compensation is something that is completely opposed by educators and their unions.

In some ways, I agree with him:  Unions fought hard to get our profession to the point where teachers can make a living wage.  For the first 70 years of the century, taxpayers were only too happy to short-change those who chose to work in a profession dominated by women—and letting go of what was once a major success is never easy to do.

But our profession is changing with the times.  As more young professionals enter our unions, they push for change to a system of compensation built for long-term stability in a time when long-term stability is somewhat foreign to most workers.  Conversations are being had at all levels of every teacher organization about “scrapping the salary schedule.”

What we’ll never go for, though, are proposals that fail to take into account consequences for the curriculum when standardized testing is placed at the center of efforts to evaluate teachers—and it’s important to know that our opposition doesn’t stem from a fear of being held accountable for results.

Instead, it stems an intimate understanding of what such systems will do to the children who sit in our classrooms.

Whew—-glad I got that off my chest!

3 thoughts on “Scrapping the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule. . .

  1. Nancy Flanagan

    Nice post, Bill. I’ve had f2f conversations with you on the same subject, so nothing you wrote surprises me–but it’s really fun to hear your voice and passion on the subject.
    Two quick points:
    First, I think Vigdor really misses the mark on NB Certification. He concedes that NBC Teachers have a “legacy” of superior student performance, even though there’s no evidence that the process itself improved the teaching. That legacy counts, though.
    Research shows that NBCTs get their biggest test-score bounce with high-needs populations. So why wouldn’t we reward them? It doesn’t matter whether they were effective before undertaking the NB process–they’re effective, so let’s reward them.
    Most teachers (over 90%, in fact) who attempt NB certification (not just those who succeed) say it’s good professional learning, whether that shows up in test scores or not. And the issue is whether teachers are effective in reaching students of all types, not how much they were impacted by the NB experience.
    About standardized tests– Bob Heiny says they’re the most reliable student assessments available. First, I’m not certain that assertion is true. They certainly produce the most convenient and malleable data–mountains and mountains of it. But the jury is still out on whether standardized tests tell us important things about students’ ultimate achievement in life, or the impact of schooling on the American economy. They’re subject to as many corrupting factors as performance assessments– and they take the all-important work of measuring student progress out of the hands of those who teaching them, and need to know what their students have learned and what they need next. The weaknesses of standardized test data–even using value-added methodologies– are well known. Just because we have not developed better, more useful assessments doesn’t mean we should defend group-based standardized tests as the premier measure of teacher performance and compensation.
    Perhaps teachers should be taught to interpret what standardized data tells them, and incorporate it as one measure in a portfolio of student learning.

  2. Bob Heiny

    You have offered a good summary of common objections by teachers to external validity checks on teachers. I press the issue to understand your point.
    It seems to me that you use a reification logic about teaching and certification. I think many of us share that wish, but know it ain’t so.
    Yet, standardized tests (whether normative or criterion referenced) by definition are the most reliable student assessment instruments available (even with the cautions you and others have described for a century).
    How else would you account for Matt the lawyer’s concerns (in a comment on your previous blog) about defining the external validity of increased classroom student academic performance part of a teacher’s contract in measurable ways that would stand legal tests? (Assume someone will challenge your option in court, which seems highly likely, if it becomes reality.)
    If you decide to use no or more than objective (standardized) measures of student gains, then why would anyone besides some educators have confidence in teacher reports and not see them as potentially self-serving (or attempts at featherbedding,” to use an old term)?

  3. ms_teacher

    I agree completely with what you wrote and specifically the part on NBPTS. My District does nothing for those us who are pursuing certification. I suspect this is part of the reason why we do not have very many nationally board certified teachers who stay in our District!

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