In a recent speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama described, in more detail than ever, his vision for comprehensive K-12 education reform.
Much of the speech hit on familiar themes. He spoke of tougher standards and increased accountability, challenging states to “adopt world-class standards that will bring curriculums into the 21st century.” He spoke of investing in early learning programs for preschool children, and pushed for broader development of longitudinal data systems that track student achievement “from childhood through college.”
Additionally, he enthusiastically endorsed public charter schools. By virtue of their unique system of governance, Obama said, public charter schools have “broad leeway to innovate” and have shown tremendous promise. He called on states to lift restrictions on public charter schools, restrictions which he said “are not good for our children, our economy, or our country.”
Maine has an absolute restriction on public charter schools, and we are one of only 10 states that ban them entirely. Legislation to authorize public charter schools is to go before legislators this year in a bill sponsored by Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton.
Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of Obama’s speech was his embrace of performance-based pay for teachers, something teacher unions have vehemently opposed, just as they have opposed the development of public charter schools. The president promised “to ensure that anyone entrusted with educating our children is doing the job as well as it can be done,” and criticized those in his own party who “have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”
Today, almost every teacher in America is paid according to a “single salary schedule,” under which teachers with the same years of service and level of education are paid the same. Such systems have come under criticism because they reward longevity rather than excellence and pay teachers according to college degrees and years of experience, two factors with little demonstrable impact on teacher quality.
In place of these systems, a number of school districts have worked with teachers to develop innovative alternative compensation models. For instance, there are districts that pay teachers extra to take on more challenging teaching assignments and some that pay more to those who teach in high-demand fields such as math and science. A growing number of districts base at least some teacher pay on performance, which is measured by student achievement, thorough assessments of teachers by trained evaluators or some combination of the two.
As an example of just such a system, President Obama mentioned South Carolina’s Teacher Advancement Program, an innovative performance-based pay initiative.
This integrated system allows teachers to assume additional leadership roles, such as mentoring new teachers or designing new student assessments, while remaining in the classroom. As teachers take on these additional responsibilities, their pay increases. Additionally, the program features a performance-pay element, in which teachers are assessed by trained evaluators and paid bonuses based on their achievement of certain performance objectives. If these evaluations reveal the need for additional training, professional development opportunities for teachers are tailored specifically to meet those needs.
The Teacher Advancement Program is in 14 states and the District of Columbia, and testing data reveal it has had a profound effect on student outcomes. Indeed, most performance-based pay systems have been shown to boost student achievement, because they have the effect of focusing teachers and administrators on the instructional practices that produce the best results.
Why do we need this new approach? As the president put it, those kids in other countries who score so well on exams are no smarter than our kids, but those nations “are being smarter about how to educate their kids” than we are. The “most important factor in a student’s success,” Obama said, “is the person standing in the front of the classroom.” We need to treat teachers “like the professionals they are,” he said, and part of that “is rewarding them with more money for improved student achievement, and asking them to accept more responsibility for lifting up our schools.”
The president made his commitment to alternative teacher pay systems real when he set aside $200 million to support the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal grant program that helps subsidize the development of alternative pay systems like South Carolina’s. Such pay systems are costly to develop, as they generally require wholesale changes to how a district manages its human resources, student assessment and professional development programs.
School districts in 32 other states have taken advantage of federal support for this promising reform approach. It is time that school districts here in Maine did as well.
Stephen Bowen is a former public school teacher and directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center.