Discussions on educator compensation frequently lead into the false dichotomy of a near-mindless defense of the traditional “step and lane” pay system, versus near-froth-mouthed advocacy for simple “cash-for-test-scores” schemes.

One side stands intentionally oblivious to the perverse teacher labor market effects to which step and lane inevitably leads. The other side ignores the underlying motivations that drive teachers and the complexity of really determining educator effectiveness.

In truth, educator compensation should be a much more diverse and rich discussion than either of these simplistic approaches.

Rather than settling for the status quo, or reaching for simple and “silver bullet” solutions to complex problems, we should be designing educator compensation systems that…

• Finally get base educator pay right.
• Use both set and variable pay components.
• Consider the variety of elements that make up total compensation (pay, benefits, and retirement).
• Address labor market issues for hard-to-staff subjects.
• Pay more for tougher jobs, like special education.
• Pay more for teachers working in high poverty schools.
• Create meaningful and multiple career paths for teachers.
• Pay for advanced degrees that are aligned with the content actually being taught.
• Pay for experience in a way aligned with research.
• Pay to extend the school year for students who would benefit from extra time.
• Buy the time needed to create meaningful teacher interactions and collaboration.
• Hook into the most powerful motivators for teachers – altruism and public service.
• Recognize and reward exceptional performance.
• Align incentives with things that are actually strategically important to the mission of education.

Any compensation system should be designed and constructed in collaboration with those it impacts. Further, schools should continuously adapt and change their compensation systems to changing economic conditions and system goals. We have let our compensation systems, which represent the single largest expenditure of any school system, run on auto-pilot for far too long. Carefully note that I’m not talking about simple cash-for-test-scores bonus schemes hung on step and lane systems. I’m talking about using the money schools already put into educator pay in more strategic and intentional ways.

It’s time we rise above the rhetoric in the debate on educator pay. It’s deeper than adherence to tradition or advocacy for simple mechanisms.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA