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Rethinking Teacher Compensation to Attract and Retain Top Talent

Note: This week's guest posts will be written by members of the YES Prep Public Schools team. Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Hines is today's guest poster.

Several years ago, YES Prep took perhaps the boldest step in our human capital history: we left behind a traditional but antiquated step-and-lane compensation system for teachers and replaced it with our Teacher Continuum, a system much more in line with the rest of our talent practices. Rather than compensating teachers based solely on how long they've been in the classroom or what degree they hold, we now base salary decisions on performance, with four salary bands through which teachers can progress over time. Moving from one salary band to another, or "gatewaying," provides teachers with tangible markers of their progress. The Teacher Continuum creates a compelling future for teachers in which sustained, strong performance is valued over tenure in an effort to maximize student achievement and attract, develop, and retain top teacher talent.   

As other districts consider how to restructure compensation in order to attract and retain talent, here are a few of the key lessons we've learned:

Teacher should help design your new compensation system. The most critical aspect of our design and change management strategy was putting teachers squarely in the center. We did this primarily via the following steps:

  1. Gathering input. We embarked on the development of this new system with a clear vision: align our compensation system with our other talent management practices and incentivize strong teachers to stay in the classroom longer. Beyond that, we encouraged our teachers to tell us what would work for them. We surveyed our staff extensively and conducted multiple focus groups with several different constituencies: veteran teachers, first year teachers, those in the second year of their Teach For America placement, and teachers who had left YES Prep. In each focus group, we asked what kind of system teachers thought might encourage high performers to stay in the classroom longer and would help them feel valued at YES.
  2. Designing the system. The core design team charged with taking all of our feedback, research, and models from other systems and creating the new YES Prep compensation model included 6 teachers, 3 board members, 2 campus admin representatives, and 2 central office leaders. All team members, including teachers, committed to meeting once every three weeks for over a year, reading about and/or researching the topic outside of meetings, and actively representing both the vision and progress of our work.
  3. Pressure testing. At several inflection points in our design process, we continued to engage our teachers, seeking their input on structure, messaging, compensation levels, and other possible incentives. 

Our focus on engagement paid off: by the time we were ready to roll out the final Continuum structure to the staff, our process had fostered both trust and familiarity, and we had broad support for the transition rather than resistance.

Engage and equip your school leadership teams. Initially, the design team worked somewhat separately from our school leaders; however, we quickly realized that the system would only be effective if it could be explained, supported, and leveraged by those who interacted most directly with teachers. Our school leaders were supportive of our transition to a new compensation system, but they were also somewhat anxious about how to have effective conversations with teachers regarding yearly growth and performance, which took on new significance in the context of possible promotions to new salary bands. We invested significant training time to equip school leaders with guides for different types of conversations, with one-on-one coaching for the most challenging kinds (for example, if a teacher does not meet expectations), and ensured that school leaders understood and could authentically articulate our purpose in transitioning to the new system. Without this investment of time and training, even the most elegantly designed system would have failed.

Be ready to invest smartly. Any system that incentivizes longevity of high performers is, by design, going to require long-term investment and a reworking of the organization's financial model. At YES Prep, we built a ten-year model based on a number of different assumptions for inflation, recruitment costs, and teacher success and persistence rates at each salary level. We estimated that implementing the new system would result in an incremental cost to the organization of just over 7 million dollars during the first five years, which, though significant, represents less than 5% of our operating budget during that time period. Thus far, our model has been surprisingly accurate. However, we have reframed the adoption of this new system as an investment rather than a cost. The questions we asked ourselves were: is investing in our highest-performing teachers the best use of these funds? Is this what we think will have the best return? The answer to both was a resounding "YES!"

Communication before, during, AND after. Adjusting people's understanding of how they are compensated for their work is incredibly complex and requires a lot of communication, not only leading up to and during change, but also after the change has occurred. Although our engagement strategy before and during the change involved frequent and purposeful communication to our teachers and leaders, once we had completed the transition, communication tapered off and engagement suffered. Teachers who were new to the system often didn't have enough context about our model, and even teachers who had been with YES for several years had lingering questions or misunderstandings. Data from our climate surveys six months and a year after the transition clearly highlighted the need to continue to communicate our purpose for the transition and the outcomes we hoped to see for both teachers and students as a result. That data has helped us create new communication and engagement systems to ensure our teachers have the information they need and a consistent voice in the process.

As our organization expands to serve 20,000 students by 2020, the greatest variable for our success will be the quality of our teachers. Knowing this, we have made an incredible investment in how we recruit, train, evaluate, and compensate our teachers. Next year, we will be opening 5 schools, which will make it our largest growth year to date and an important test of the strength of our human capital programming. As we gather data during this expansion, we look forward not only to celebrating the successes of our students that will come from having a strong teaching staff, but also to learning from our failures to continually adapt and refine our practices for the sake of our students.

--Jennifer Hines

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