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Improving Teacher Quality Through Teacher Incentive Funds

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Dear Marc,

You asked whether paying more to teachers is one possible long-term solution to improving teacher quality. Paying more money to teachers is not enough by itself, but it can be one part of an overall school-wide improvement plan that would have a positive impact on teacher effectiveness. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund is a program that supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based compensation systems so that teachers and administrators are rewarded financially for increases in student achievement.

A first-year teacher in NYC with a master’s degree is paid around $50,000 and currently has a very competitive health and pension benefits’ package. I added the word currently because many of us fear that these benefits are threatened as costs become unmanageable. We continue to see these packages being diminished piece by piece. I know we are in a recession and this gives us adequate cause to tackle our spending challenges, but this has not stopped us from bailing out failing companies or ensuring that Wall Street gets its bonuses. I understand the need to do both of these things and support the notion of the trickle-down effect. But, as you mentioned, education is an investment in our society that serves a purpose greater than the individual successes achieved. I find it ironic that at the same time we are pushing for massive educational reforms we seem to be attacking some of the very benefits that attract people into the profession and make them want to stay.

I am not a fan of getting short-term dynamic teachers into the system who will do their three-year stint and leave. Imagine this type of setup in medicine, law or scientific research?  I am a fan of getting dynamic, highly qualified individuals into teaching who consider their profession as a calling, a mission or in the words of Joseph Campbell — a heroic journey. I am not a fan of watering down teacher training programs as a way to get more people into the profession. I am a fan of reevaluating what skill sets and expertise teachers must have to meet the needs of our time and creating programs and residencies that support their professional growth. I am a fan of increasing salaries so that all teachers work an 11-month school year where one month is devoted to strategic planning. One of the biggest obstacles to creating, implementing, evaluating and reworking school-wide initiatives is the lack of planning time. At Renaissance, we have built-in compensated time during the school day and after-school, but it is not sufficient to meet the ever-increasing accountability benchmarks. Finally, and while there is so much more to say, successful teachers share in the leadership of the school. This can include a broad spectrum of responsibilities, but a sense of ownership is probably the most important step in creating sustainable individual accountability.

Where does the teacher incentive fund fit in? While it is not a magic pill, it brings in a substantial amount of money during the length of the grant. Federal grants provide seed funding with the expectations that this will promote an ongoing funding of the initiative through other venues, but this part is often problematic. A second potential downside is that if the programs are implemented incorrectly they have the potential to do more harm than good. They can breed negative competition, shut down collaboration, narrow the teaching focus to a test prep mentality, and present more work  to schools that are already bureaucratically overburdened. However, a well-balanced plan can be a way to support the professional growth of teachers, reward teachers for student growth and incentivize the community as a whole toward meeting school-wide goals. The consortium we are a part of has at the heart of its plan the components of a school-wide improvement model — an ingredient missing in plans that only look at student test scores.

At Renaissance, our plan consists of three unique components all designed by a team of representative teachers, paraprofessionals, the UFT chapter leader and administrators.  Team composition is a key factor in developing and getting plan buy-in. The first part of our plan gives extra pay to teachers who plan instruction using data, develop curriculum and engage in activities that support their professional growth. It comprises 25 percent of the total incentive, and while voluntary, we have over 98 percent participation. The second and third parts consist of grade cluster growth goals and school-wide goals which are directly tied to our charter accountability measures. These accountability measures are part of our school’s performance agreement with the Board of Regents. They comprise 51 percent and 24 percent of the incentives respectively. Teachers can earn additional funds by undertaking other leadership activities in the school including creating model lessons and coordinating school-wide initiatives.

I like this model because it does three main things. It gets and keeps everyone talking about continual improvement, provides a framework and resources for teachers and administrators to be successful, and rewards these efforts with dollars. It has certainly not always been easy as we worked through the early years. But the positive outcomes have strongly outweighed any challenges. And to end on a very direct note — we need to do all these things mentioned above anyway, so why not be compensated for them?

Would love to hear your ideas on the large net I’ve thrown out here.


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