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Unflattening Teaching and Raising the Ceiling on Pay

In my previous post, I suggested that teaching positions be reconfigured so that they have varying levels of responsibility and compensation. A robust discussion has ensued in the comments, and as I always hope when I write here, this has pushed my thinking further on the issue.

First, on the matter of flexibility in pay and duties—it occurred to me today that we already have some options for people to take on less work in exchange for less pay. It's called being part-time. We have many excellent teachers who either have family obligations or just don't need the money and choose to work part-time rather than full-time.

As I said in my last post, I think we should take it a step further and allow full-time teachers to take on a variety of different roles. Larger schools and districts may already have a variety of non-classroom positions such as specialists, coaches, deans, and the like, but I think we need to extend this flexibility to the classroom level.

It's common in many professions to have different levels within the same job category, e.g. Senior Programmer vs. Programmer, or Project Manager II vs. Project Management Lead. It's also common in schools—we have different levels of secretaries, and it's based on responsibility, not seniority.

I took some heat for proposing that some teachers be paid more and others be paid less, mainly from people who assumed that I meant we should cut the salaries of existing veteran teachers. That doesn't seem fair, so I'd lean more toward a phase-in, so that this only applies to people who opt into a new system (e.g. when a team has a vacancy and wants to reconfigure its staffing).

Second, I think there's a side benefit to un-flattening teacher duties and pay: Greater support for higher salaries for teachers overall. Consider the taxpayer, who looks skeptically at every levy, bond measure, or millage, and asks "Do I really think every teacher deserves a raise?" If you read the comments on your newspaper's website, you'll know that most people don't think every single teacher deserves a raise.

But most people agree: "The good ones deserve a raise." Right now, we have very few good ways to provide raises just to "the good ones," chiefly because of difficulty in measuring or rating teaching quality. Value-added or test-based ratings are riddled with flaws and uncertainty, to the point that it's seeming like it's not worth even trying to pay for performance.

But it's easy to pay by seniority (which we could continue to do under this proposal) and it's easy to pay by job category. All we'd have to do is create different types of classroom teaching positions, like Master Teacher and Team Lead and Teaching Associate or whatever you want to call the various positions. If you want one of these positions, you'd have to interview for it and be hired into it (even if moving from another position in the same school), and the position would come with a defined level of work and responsibility.

We don't currently have real expectations for how much work or responsibility individual teachers will take on. We just expect everyone to do as much as possible and do as well as possible, and pay them all the same (with differentials based on experience and advanced degrees). This fails to recognize and encourage those who take on titled or de facto leadership roles, and who put in lots of extra work to satisfy their own high standards.

Intrinsic motivation is great, but we should also structure the job around the most intrinsically motivated people, to encourage, attract, and retain them. When we do this, a funny thing happens: Everyone benefits. Those who are less effective and less motivated have a clear path for getting with the program, and those who are more effective and more motivated are rewarded accordingly.

When faced with the chance to raise the pay for the best teachers in our community, who will say no? The rising tide will then lift all boats, because it'll be our best teachers, not our worst, who are on taxpayers' minds as they go to the ballot box.

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