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Problems with One-Size-Fits-All Pay

By Frederick M. Hess

Any meaningful effort to redefine the teaching job, as Greg, Olivia, and I suggest in this week's Ed Week piece, will inevitably raise questions of how to redefine compensation. As cash-strapped states and school systems wrestle with tight budgets, it's vital to recognize that one-size-fits-all pay is insensitive to questions of productivity. Although the term productivity is regarded as an irritant in most education conversations, it refers to nothing more than how much good a given employee can do. If one teacher is regarded by colleagues as a far more valued mentor than another, or if one reading instructor helps students master skills much more rapidly than another, it's axiomatic that some teachers do more good than others do (that is, that some are more productive than others).

One-size-fits-all compensation means that we're either paying the most effective employees too little, paying their less effective colleagues too much, or, most times, a little of each. In a world of scarce talent and limited resources, this is a problem. Savvy leaders recognize the benefits of steering resources to employees who do the most good, as these are the employees whom schools most need to keep and from whom they need to most effectively wring every ounce of skill.

Thus, a crucial element of a well-designed merit-pay system is rewarding employees who not only do a terrific job but also do so in a way that extends their effect on students and schools. Rewarding prized mentors who choose to mentor more colleagues (while continuing to get high marks from them) or boosting pay for terrific classroom teachers who choose to take on larger student loads (while continuing to excel) are ways to use limited resources to amplify the contributions of skilled professionals.

One-size-fits-all pay also inhibits efforts to leverage the opportunities for differentiation and specialization that new technologies and staffing models offer, such as the use of part-time professionals by the Boston-based Citizen Schools. Today, school systems casually operate on the implicit assumption that most teachers will be similarly adept at everything. In a routine day, a 4th grade teacher who is a terrific English language arts instructor might teach reading for just 90 minutes. For schools blessed with such a teacher, this is an extravagant waste of talent, especially when one can stroll down the hallway and see a less adept colleague offering 90 minutes of pedestrian reading instruction. If we're sincere about the centrality of early reading proficiency, using these educators in this fashion is simply irresponsible.

One approach to using talent more wisely might entail overhauling teacher schedules and student assignment so that the single exceptional English language arts instructor would teach reading to every student in that 4th grade. Colleagues, in turn, would shoulder that teacher's other instructional responsibilities. However, this is not an even swap. Excellent reading instructors are rare; we should refashion compensation to recognize their importance. If that encourages other teachers to develop their skills and pursue this role, so much the better. Districts with a plethora of talent can then revise staffing accordingly. The point is that salary should be a tool for solving problems by finding smarter ways to attract, nurture, and use talent; it should not be an obstacle to doing so.

After all, we pay thoracic surgeons much more than we do pediatric nurses--not because we think they're better people or because they have lower patient mortality rates, but because their positions require more sophisticated skills and more intensive training and because surgeons are harder to replace. By allowing pay to reflect perceived value, law and medicine have made it possible for accomplished attorneys or doctors to earn outsized compensation without ever moving into administration or management. That kind of a model in education would permit truly revolutionary rethinking in how we recruit, retain, and deploy effective educators. That's a far cry from today's ill-conceived proposals to slather some test-based bonuses atop existing pay scales.


Frederick M. Hess is resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and author, most recently, of The Same Thing Over and Over.

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