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The Bottom Line The Teacher Pay Debate (Part 3): Implementing Incentives

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a three-part article. Click to read Part One and Part Two.]

Instead of simply championing higher teacher pay, a more sound approach is to implement financial incentives for teachers who meet performance goals, as is the case in other professional fields. Rather than the traditional seniority salary schedule, teacher pay must be determined by demand, expertise, and, most importantly, how well students learn.

A new teacher pay model can provide an opportunity for teachers to earn significantly more — but only those who foster robust student learning. Teachers who fail to bring about student learning gains not only warrant less pay than their peers but should be released if, after a period of mentorship and support, their performance is not improved. This is no different from a salesperson who consistently fails to meet the sales goals. However, poor teachers are retained year after year and experience a pay increase annually, despite subpar professional performance due to tenure and a lack of teacher accountability for cultivating student learning.

Teacher pay must also factor in teachers’ shorter annual work year — typically only about 38 work weeks (190 workdays) a year, which is 25% less than most other professions. The widespread narrative that teacher pay should be increased often neglects to recognize teachers only log 75% as many annual work weeks compared to their counterparts in alternative professions. That’s approximately 14 weeks off a year versus the typical two-three weeks found in other professional industries.

Now more than ever, due to the long duration of COVID-19 school closure, there is no shortage of needed learning time for students with their teachers. The school calendar, designed generations ago, is another area long overdue for an overhaul. A three-month break in school has proven counterproductive to student learning. Offering high performing teachers the option to work twelve months with students who need additional learning time would substantially boost their annual salary. This avenue could combat the current reality of excellent teachers exiting the profession simply to increase their earning power.

It’s not an overstatement to point out that our country’s future well-being hinges on the education of our children. No longer can it be permissible that 70% of our students do not receive the K-12 education needed to succeed in life and a career. Not only will this be a future fiscal catastrophe to our country, but detrimental to each one of those individual lives.

The U.S. can’t afford to continue to increase teacher pay in accordance with an ineffective, outdated compensation model. Strategic measures must be implemented in order that excellent teachers are rewarded exceptionally well financially for their superior, invaluable work while simultaneously raising the bar and eliminating the wasteful spending on ineffective, unengaged performers.

We need the best and the brightest opting to enter the teaching field, driven to produce remarkable student learning results, and staying in the classroom long-term. It’s time to financially incentivize teachers who are high-performing, willing to work twelve months, and serve in high demand areas and subjects.

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The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?