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Career Ladders for Educators

In a comment on my recent post on merit pay at LeaderTalk, reader Tgoble outlined a system for paying and promoting teachers based on their performance that I think deserves more attention. I will draw heavily on this description to make, for the sake of discussion, a proposal of my own:

I agree, merit pay is coming and with it certain controversy. I would like pay, overall, to be based on several factors: experience, results, collegiality, innovation, and level of education to name a few. I would propose a six level system: novice, novice 2, professional, professional 2, master teacher and master teacher 2. Teachers would need to apply for advancement by creating a portfolio of work and be subject to review by parents, colleagues, and supervisors. In order to advance teachers would need to prove they are qualified....why don't we put the responsibility to prove competence on the teacher?


Teachers would be paid based on their level of proficiency as proven by review. All professional 2 teachers would be paid the same...with a COLA given each year. If you want to move up, the responsibility to prove you deserve advancement is on you. The criteria should be rigorous and advancement to master teacher seen as an accomplishment with a salary to match. If you want to become an administrator, you must first become a master teacher. Just a thought.

Tgoble makes many excellent points. First, I agree that administrators should have to become master teachers first. When I became a principal, my effectiveness as a teacher was never discussed or investigated; it was simply not a selection criterion.

Second, I like the idea of meaningful career ladders, because this is how employment works in many other sectors, from the military to corporate America. In no other highly skilled profession is advancement based solely on seniority; my friends in the software industry are eligible to apply for promotions (e.g. to Lead Engineer I, Lead Engineer II, etc.) when they have developed a track record of excellence. Surely our standards—nor the opportunities available to teachers—should not be lower in education.

Several factors would need to be in place for such a system to be successful.

First, the raise obtained by moving up a level would need to be substantial—in the range of $10,000—and be accompanied by increased prestige, which matters even more than money. Top-tier teachers could be tapped to provide professional development and host intern teachers (though they should also be paid for their time, not expected to do extra work as a condition of their promotion).

Second, the number of available promotions each year would have to be strictly limited—if everyone gets promoted, it's no longer a performance-based system. The process would have to be rigorous, on the level of National Board Certification, or else the program would lose the credibility it would need to sustain its funding.

Third, districts (and perhaps states) would need to take steps to prevent perverse incentives from developing. We would not want schools to hire people low on the career ladder in order to save money; instead, schools could be charged the same rate for all teachers, with the district picking up the added cost of people higher on the career ladder. At the same time, there would need to be restrictions on changing schools to prevent all of the top educators from migrating to "easier" schools after receiving their promotions (one helpful rule, for example, might stipulate that if you voluntarily move to a new school, you have to go down a step on the career ladder and re-apply for your most recent promotion). Otherwise, people would transfer into the schools with the least competition for the promotions, and then transfer out.

Fourth, I think there's a strong case to be made for paying more to highly qualified educators who work in the neediest schools. For example, if a science teacher would receive a $3,000 retention bonus in a typical school, they could receive a $6,000 bonus in a high-needs school. District of Columbia schools have taken this approach to mitigate the talent gap that often impacts high-poverty schools:

"Good teachers have always transferred over time to easier schools, because there are so few other ways to reward yourself,"said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that promotes wider educational opportunities for minority and low-income students. (Washington Post, November 13, 2010)

I also wonder if it would help to make the size of the raise based on the labor market conditions for that specialty—for example, science teachers who can make more in the private sector might start at the same salary as social studies teachers, but receive a larger raise for promotions to act as a retention incentive. These figures could be adjusted regularly to match labor market conditions.

The same structure could be used for principals—with greater expertise comes greater prestige, compensation, and opportunity to contribute to the growth of others.

The cost of all of this, of course, will likely be job security, pensions, and other perks that are common in the teaching profession but increasingly rare in other sectors (and therefore under fire in the teaching profession). Unless new funding materializes, career ladders will probably have to be funded at the expense of the existing seniority- and credits-based compensation system. Here's a description of a career ladder proposal under discussion in Florida.

How would you restructure the teaching profession's career ladder system (or lack thereof)?

Follow me on Twitter: @eduleadership

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