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The Bottom Line Rethinking Teacher Pay to Recruit Subject Matter Experts

Originally published at American Enterprise Institute

Key Points

  • Current teacher compensation systems reward seniority, regardless of performance or previous experience outside the teaching field.
  • Reforming teacher compensation would aid in recruiting and retaining subject matter experts to serve as adjunct teachers in K–12 schools.
  • These adjunct teachers could fill gaps in crucial areas that currently face extreme teacher shortages.

The COVID-19 pandemic — and the school closures, mandates, and fearmongering it induced — has exacerbated the growing K-12 public school teacher shortage.[i] As a result, our nation faces a severe classroom-staffing crisis, with nearly half of public school administrators reporting that they can’t find enough full-time teachers to fill their classroom needs.[ii]

However, the staffing problem is not limited to simply having a sufficient number of teachers to fill vacancies; there is also a quality issue. The lower quality and quantity of instruction from moving to remote learning has resulted in students facing staggering learning loss.[iii] Even before the pandemic, and despite our country outspending nearly every other nation, U.S. public school students failed to achieve basic proficiency in core subjects.[iv] When averaged across subjects, a mere 26 percent of 12th-grade students in the U.S. were labeled “proficient” in 2019.[v] Such performance demands that administrators focus on recruiting high-quality teachers to fill these gaps.

At the heart of the current teacher quantity and quality shortage are long-standing structural hindrances — a stringent and deficient teacher certification process that prevents highly qualified individuals from entering the profession and a pay structure that hinders administrators’ ability to recruit and retain subject matter experts as teachers.[vi] By reforming these two areas of the K-12 education system, administrators would be able to hire and entice subject matter experts to join the teaching force as adjunct teachers.

Subject Matter Experts Can Fill Crucial Teaching Gaps, but They Are Challenging to Recruit

When a teacher lacks expertise in a subject, problems arise. That teacher can be limited in the ability to adapt content and curricula and make them applicable and accessible for students with various learning styles. A teacher’s lack of expertise can also result in inaccurately communicating key concepts to students — particularly when that teacher is put on the spot to quickly answer a student’s question. The implications can be significant and long-lasting for students, especially since content in technical subjects builds on previously taught foundational concepts.

Employing as adjunct teachers those who have obtained their expertise in a particular subject through an advanced degree, professional experience, or a combination of both can raise the level of learning in classrooms. Subject matter expertise is particularly valuable for teachers in technical subjects such as science, math, technology, and foreign languages and in advanced secondary courses. But these technical subjects are also where the teacher shortages are greatest.[vii] Since these experts typically have substantially greater earning power as professionals in their industry than they do as teachers, it is especially challenging for schools to recruit them.

In addition to removing the barrier to teacher certification, a better method of compensating these adjunct teachers is needed to create an approach that reflects the advanced content expertise necessary to teach high-need, technical courses. Offering competitive compensation aimed at successfully recruiting and retaining experts would not only fill vacancies but also attract a pool of highly qualified individuals to the profession.

Creating a Performance Pay System to Recruit and Retain Adjunct Teachers

As it stands now, public schools typically employ a “step and lane” salary schedule that calculates pay for all teachers based on years taught and education level obtained. Unfortunately, these schedules do not factor in professional experience outside of K-12 teaching. So, a midcareer subject matter expert entering the teaching field would be compensated the same as a first-year teacher who just graduated from college.

To attract highly qualified subject matter experts to the K-12 teaching profession from other industries, the pay system should be overhauled. It’s unimaginable to expect a computer programmer or engineer with 15 years of experience to enter the teaching profession and make an entry-level salary. State legislators can move the ball forward by permitting districts the flexibility to employ adjunct teachers. For instance, legislators can give district and school leaders the autonomy to determine compensation on an individual basis within their allocated funds. This would empower them to hire in a way that more effectively serves their students’ needs, which district and school leaders are better positioned to determine than legislators or other outside parties.

Additionally, state and district leaders should create a system for adjunct teachers that sets pay based on the candidates’ experience and expertise gained before their time in the classroom. The system should also determine raises and bonuses based on their effectiveness in the classroom. High-caliber candidates are attracted to vocations that reward their professional performance. Moving to performance pay for adjunct teachers could create strong incentives to dramatically improve both teacher quality and productivity by attracting these high-caliber candidates to the field.[viii]

A new pay system for adjunct teachers wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all formula. Each state and district would need flexibility to employ pay practices for adjunct teachers that fit their unique needs and context. Policymakers and administrators would have to consider the plethora of factors that contribute to a teacher’s professional performance and create a salary formula that reflects their priorities and goals — with students’ academic growth as a primary target.

As a starting point, the number of courses an adjunct teacher would be conducting and the demand for their expertise to staff the particular subject they would teach should help set the baseline for compensation. Next, the candidate’s expertise and experience (both in and out of the classroom) would need to be incorporated into determining their pay. In subsequent years, student learning gains should also be included in determining financial compensation.

Additional components for determining pay should include the teacher’s continued professional development and rapport with students, parents, and colleagues. Formal surveys to collect feedback from these stakeholders could contribute a small percentage of the overall pay determination. While more arbitrary in nature, the student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships are important and affect student learning significantly. Furthermore, teachers who go above and beyond to contribute positively to the school environment should be recognized and rewarded. All these components and others that the state or district may want to add should factor into determining subject matter experts’ pay as adjunct teachers.

The Benefits of a Revamped Teacher Pay System

While it’s easy to assume that teachers primarily leave the field because of what many deem as uniformly low pay, that’s not the case.[ix] Instead, the primary problem is that our current system fails to incentivize and reward the performance of exceptional and hardworking teachers. These teachers should be recognized and financially compensated for positively affecting students’ lives and learning. If teachers felt appreciated for the value they contributed toward student learning and were not bound to a set salary despite their exceptional efforts, we would likely see leaps in student learning gains.[x]

Indeed, the benefits of a teacher pay system that recognizes and rewards subject matter expertise and performance would be enormous. Evidence reveals that positive student learning gains are present in public schools where these approaches have been implemented. The Dallas Independent School District in Texas is one example.[xi] Nearly half the public districts in Wisconsin are another.[xii] Additionally, private schools and charter schools have benefited in recruiting and retaining teachers by having the autonomy to operate outside a set salary schedule.[xiii]

Revamping the pay system for adjunct teachers is a strategic next step. As this approach is employed and positive outcomes are evidenced, momentum toward implementing it for all teachers could be gained.

What Must Change to Implement Performance Pay

Moving away from a standardized, one-size-fits-all approach to teacher compensation is foundational to implementing a pay system that recruits and retains subject matter experts. Student performance results must be a primary factor in determining raises, instead of just the number of years working as a teacher. And while teaching experience is important, indirect professional experience should not be overlooked when negotiating salary.

To make this concept a reality, state policymakers should focus on enacting policies that allow the hiring of noncertified adjunct teachers and customization in determining pay. Meanwhile, private and charter schools can exercise their autonomy to employ and compensate adjunct teachers without the need for statewide reforms.

Why Conservatives Should Champion Performance Pay

Conservatives should champion proven practices that attract and retain experts and incentivize high teacher performance. Studies have shown that the teacher is the number one school-based influence on student learning. Therefore, advocating for policies that boost teacher talent and performance should be a top priority.

Furthermore, recruiting highly qualified subject matter experts to join the teaching force aligns with conservative free-market and entrepreneurial principles. Implementing these reforms to the system for hiring and compensating teachers could foster these values in the education sphere.


Rather than relying solely on the dwindling pipeline of education school graduates for new teachers, it’s time we attracted the most qualified subject matter experts to staff our nation’s K-12 schools as adjunct teachers. To successfully recruit and retain these professionals, states and districts must pay them a salary that will be commensurate with professional experience and content expertise outside the teaching workforce. State legislators can start this transition by allowing districts the flexibility to employ adjunct teachers and the autonomy to determine compensation on an individual basis within their allocated funds to best serve their students’ needs.

[i] Annie Buttner, “The Teacher Shortage, 2021 Edition,” Frontline Education, April 19, 2021,

[ii] Dante Chinni, “‘Great Resignation’ Hits Schools Across All Positions,” NBC News, December 26, 2021,

[iii] Li-Kai Chen et al., “Teacher Survey: Learning Loss Is Global—and Significant,” McKinsey & Company, March 1, 2021,; and Karyn Lewis and Megan Kuhfeld, “Learning During COVID-19: An Update on Student Achievement and Growth at the Start of the 2021–22 School Year,” NWEA, December 2021,

[iv] Clint Bolick and Kate J. Hardiman, Unshackled: Freeing America’s K-12 Education System (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2020),

[v] Nation’s Report Card, “How Did U.S. Students Perform on the Most Recent Assessments?,” 2019,

[vi] Keri D. Ingraham, “Rethinking Teacher Certification to Employ K-12 Adjunct Teachers,” American Enterprise Institute, September 14, 2021,

[vii] US Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, “High-Need Fields,”

[viii] Victor Lavy, “Performance Pay and Teachers’ Effort, Productivity, and Grading Ethics,” American Economic Review 99, no. 5 (December 2009): 1979–2011,; and Edward P. Lazear, “Performance Pay and Productivity,” American Economic Review 90, no. 5 (December 2000): 1346–61,

[ix] Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, and Steven G. Rivkin, “Why Public Schools Lose Teachers,” Journal of Human Resources 39, no. 2 (Spring 2004): 326–54,

[x] Victor Lavy, “Using Performance-Based Pay to Improve the Quality of Teachers,” Future of Children 17, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 87–109,

[xi] Steven Rivkin et al., “A Consideration of Educator Evaluation and Compensation Reform,” Hoover Institution, 2020,

[xii] Aaron Churchill, “Want Great Teachers and Higher Achievement? A Study from Wisconsin Suggests Trying Flexible Pay,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, August 12, 2021,

[xiii] Julie Kowal, Emily Ayscue Hassel, and Bryan C. Hassel, Teacher Compensation in Charter and Private Schools: Snapshots and Lessons for District Public Schools, Center for American Progress, February 6, 2007,

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, The Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, National Review, The American Spectator, Daily Caller, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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