Experts: Best teacher pay plans provide local flexibility

After years of study and struggle, no state has created a large-scale, long-lasting pay system that recognizes and rewards the most effective teachers, a North Carolina task force recently concluded.

Instead, the teacher compensation panel said, the best hope lies in local flexibility.

William Slotnik says the panel is right. He’s a performance-pay consultant who spent years working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. His Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center works with districts across the country on teacher pay and effectiveness.

“The core challenge is that at first glance the idea is simplicity itself,” Slotnik said. “The problem is it starts getting complex very, very quickly.”

The search for answers comes as North Carolina’s low teacher salaries get renewed attention. When the General Assembly convenes next week, boosting teacher pay – especially for early-career teachers – will be high on the agenda. North Carolina ranks 46th in average teacher pay.

Also next week, the CMS school board will vote on a budget. Superintendent Heath Morrison wants $27 million from the county to ensure that employees get 3 percent raises.

But CMS leaders, like many experts, say raises alone aren’t enough. They’ve been working with teachers for years to craft a plan that provides bigger rewards for top teachers and creates career paths that help them reach more students. Local leaders say their efforts have been stymied in part by a lack of state money to turn grant-funded pilots into systemic reform.

The CMS board recently voted to ask legislators to hold off on the controversial “25 percent plan,” which mandates that one-quarter of qualified teachers be offered four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises. Instead, CMS is asking the state to let the district use that money for a pay plan of its own devising.

Partnership between district leaders and local teachers is essential to making a plan work, Slotnik says. So is commitment from taxpayers to foot the bill. Failures remain more common than successes, but some districts have made gains that may hold lessons for North Carolina.

Denver: Taxpayers say yes

The pay system known as Procomp in Denver, Colo., is the nation’s standout when it comes to new approaches to teacher pay.

A third-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree would get a $40,397 base salary in Denver but could earn up to $51,680 with Procomp incentives, according to the district’s website. Rewards include bonuses based on student test-score gains and “market incentives” for hard-to-fill fields and high-needs schools.

In comparison, CMS would offer $35,418 in salary. Many schools – generally those with high poverty levels and academic challenges – also offer recruitment and/or performance bonuses. But how much is offered at which school changes from year to year, as private donations, federal grants and local pilot programs come and go.

That’s the Denver difference. In 2005, local taxpayers approved a levy of $25 million a year in inflation-adjusted dollars for the next 50 years to support Procomp. That came after a four-year pilot developed by the local school district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. The two bodies review and revise the plan every three years.

North Carolina districts don’t have the ability to levy taxes; they get most of their operating money from the state legislature and county commissioners. While local design and buy-in are essential, Slotnik says, so is a reliable source of money. “If you’re going to be successful,” he says, “it’s going to cost more.”

D.C.: Up or out

State officials are looking at the District of Columbia’s IMPACT program, which provides pay hikes and bonuses for teachers deemed top performers. Those with lower ratings must demonstrate improvement or be fired.

Ratings are based on test scores, classroom observations, teamwork and professionalism. Those rated ineffective are subject to dismissal after one year. Those with slightly higher ratings get no raise, but intensive coaching to improve. If they don’t, they can be fired after two or three years.

Effective teachers advance normally on the pay scale, while those rated highly effective can qualify for base salary raises up to $27,000 and bonuses up to $25,000. Maximum compensation is $131,540 a year.

The program was introduced in 2009 by then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Not surprisingly, the push to get rid of low-rated teachers was controversial, and Rhee resigned after the mayor who appointed her was voted out in 2010.

Private foundations pledged $64 million to cover the first three years of IMPACT, which included about $7.2 million a year in bonuses, The Washington Post reported. In 2012, as that money ran out, the district got a $62 million grant from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund.

IMPACT supporters note a sharp rise in the district’s national test scores in the years since the program was introduced (its achievement level remains well below that of CMS). And the teachers forced out are being replaced by those who rate higher, research shows.

At educator forums in Charlotte and Raleigh this year, Harvard researchers told policymakers that getting rid of the lowest-performing teachers is the best way to improve student achievement.

Manassas: Need to compete

The teacher pay scale in Prince William County, Va., is the kind that inspires envy south of the state line.

Starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s is $45,370 a year. A teacher with a master’s degree tops out at just over $103,000. By comparison, CMS teachers start at $35,417 with a bachelor’s, and top out at $77,697 if they have a master’s and national board certification (in Prince William County, that certification brings an additional $600 a year).

Virginia districts have more flexibility than those in North Carolina to set their own salary scales. The state also encourages districts to create “strategic compensation” plans to reward teachers for student gains and taking on difficult assignments, with $7.5 million in state money available to support such efforts.

Prince William County, a district of about 85,000 students, has gotten a five-year, $11 million grant to provide extra training and performance rewards for teachers in its high-poverty schools.

But officials in Manassas, about 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., say the driving force in teacher pay there is simple: Location.

“When you get up toward Washington there are higher salaries, but it’s a higher cost of living,” said Irene Cromer, a Prince William district spokeswoman. “We have to stay up with the competition.”

That illustrates the shortcoming of comparing state averages. Virginia may be a Southeastern state bordering North Carolina, but Cromer and John Wallingford, the district’s director of financial services, say the D.C. area is a whole different world, economically, than southern Virginia.

“There are townhomes in northern Virginia that are $400,000, $450,000,” Wallingford says.

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