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Teacher Pay Is All Wrong, Say Reform Group

The New Teacher Project (TNTP), an education reform group, has released a new report with a major claim: Nearly 90 percent of America’s school districts pay teachers in entirely the wrong way.

Inefficient pay structures, the group says, waste money, reward mediocrity, and drive promising talent away from the field of education. A total overhaul is needed, the group says, to create both better and more equal educational outcomes for America’s youth.

The focus of TNTP’s criticism is so-called “lockstep” pay, which teachers are given raises based on seniority or the acquisition of graduate degrees, with less regard for effectiveness in the classroom.

According to the group, an ineffective teacher with 20 years of experience in Richmond, Virginia will earn $69,000 a year, while an effective teachers with only five years of experience earns just $44,000.

Lockstep pay increases amount to a huge expenditure that could be allocated towards improving education in many other ways, the group argues. According to TNTP, $8.5 billion is spent every year providing lockstep raises, which could fund school nutrition programs for over 15 million students.

In addition, the factors that add to lockstep pay increases are of dubious value to educational outcomes. The group cites studies which have found that for most fields earning a master’s degree has almost no effect on a teacher’s success instructing students, but nonetheless billions is spent every year to encourage teachers to acquire such degrees.

The group also sharply condemns policies that pay teachers in the same district identical salaries when some teach in far more challenging environments. The report compares a high-income school in Chicago with a low-income one that must cope with homeless students, high truancy, larger classes, and a significant crime risk. While the latter school is a much more difficult one to teach in, teachers with the same level of education would earn the exact same amount at either school.

“In almost no other field would you find professionals compensated at identical levels for working in vastly different environments with vastly different challenges,” the report argues.

The group proposes reform based on three principles. First, instead of starting teachers with lower pay and then increasing it dramatically through lockstep measures, schools should start off teachers with higher salaries that are more competitive with other professions. Second, schools should offer more pay increases based on direct classroom performance rather than on seniority or the acquisition of degrees. Lastly, schools should offer financial incentives for teachers to choose high-need schools over more successful ones. Meanwhile, automatic seniority raises should be eliminated, the group argues.

“Traditional salary schedules backload teacher pay so that teachers reach peak salary around retirement age instead of when they are making key decisions about whether or not to stay in the profession, in their district or at their school,” the report says.

While some requests, such as boosting starter pay for teachers, would likely draw significant support from the educational establishment, the elimination of seniority benefits and implementation of merit-pay systems puts TNTP in opposition to most of the country’s formidable teachers unions.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have voiced limited support for merit-based pay incentives, but have been sharply critical of their implementation. Merit-based pay should include experience and educational factors, they argue, and should avoid depending on measures such as standardized test scores that they argue overly favor teachers at successful schools.

The New Teacher Project was founded by former Washington, D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and has the stated goal of helping ensure equal educational opportunities for poor and minority students.

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