We know that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor impacting student performance—and that the variation in teacher quality can be enormous, even within the same school. We also know that most teachers are paid according to step-and-lane salary schedules that exclusively reward years on the job and degrees earned. These systems pay no attention to instructional effectiveness, attendance, leadership and collaboration within one’s school, or any other attributes relevant to being a good worker.
When I entered the classroom at age twenty-two, I looked at my contract and realized I wouldn’t reach my desired salary until I was in my mid-to-late forties. I would reach that level regardless of whether I took one or fifteen sick days every year; whether I put in the bare minimum or a herculean effort (as many educators do in fact do); or whether I clocked out at 3:01 or stayed with my students to offer extra help. No matter the outcomes my kids achieved, my salary would steadily tick upward based only on time accrued. Predictable, yes. But given the urgent task at hand—to keep excellent educators at the instructional helm, address the challenges of burnout and attrition, and professionalize teaching—it’s woefully insufficient.
That’s why the breakdown of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s (CMSD) innovative teacher pay system is so disappointing. Developed in partnership with the Cleveland Teachers Union as part of a comprehensive package of reforms to improve the city’s schools, CMSD’s new teacher pay system was codified in 2012 by HB 525. The law earned rare bipartisan support and teacher buy-in and was the first -of-its-kind in Ohio to base annual salary increases on factors beyond years of experience and degrees—which should matter to some extent, just not singularly.
The multifaceted system went beyond the typical forms of “merit pay” largely disliked by teachers. The law required that all of the following be considered: the level of license a teacher holds; whether the teacher is highly qualified; ratings received on performance evaluations; and any “specialized training and experience in the assigned position.” Further, it allowed (but did not require) the district to compensate teachers for additional factors: working in a high-needs school (those receiving Title 1 funds); working in a challenged school (those in school improvement status); or teaching in a grade-level or subject with a staff shortage, a hard-to-staff school, or a school with an extended day or year—all of which are worthy of reward.
The system informed by the law and agreed upon in the 2013 teachers contract retained a fifteen-step pay system, but allowed for teachers’ placements within that system to be determined by how many “achievement credits” they earned, rather than by years of service and degrees. (Teachers were to earn credits through strong evaluation ratings as well as the ways described above.) Depending on their credit total, newer teachers could be placed further along in the new step system than in the previous model, while more experienced teachers wouldn’t automatically go to a higher rung (though no existing teacher would see her pay cut as a result of the new plan and all teachers received a one-time $1,500 bonus during the transition to the new pay scale).
But Cleveland’s promising compensation strategy has fallen apart just three years in, illustrating how a promising plan can die in the hands of bureaucrats and interest groups. There’s been mounting frustration that teacher raises were tied too heavily to annual evaluations rather than a combination of factors as allowed (but not required) by the original law. Despite “hours of meetings over the last four years,” the district and teachers union couldn’t come to basic agreements about how to define or reward performance. And even though 65 percent of teachers earned significant salary increases during the plan’s first two years, the union complained that some stipends were one-time allowances rather than permanent salary bumps. Meanwhile, the district never granted extra compensation for hard-to-fill jobs (saying there were none), nor would it pay extra for teachers working in corrective action schools. Last month, Cleveland teachers moved to strike, forcing all parties back to the negotiating table to reach a deal before the start of the school year.
That deal erases nearly all of the reforms enacted three years ago. It still grants teacher raises according to annual ratings but flattens those raises out and ensures that nearly everyone except the gravely incompetent earn them. Any teacher receiving the top three ratings—accomplished, skilled, or developing—will get the same raise. Much like the traditional step-and-lane structure, it treats nearly all teachers in equal fashion. The key difference is that ineffective teachers (just one percent of CMSD’s teaching force in 2014–15) will have their pay frozen, and teachers earning the top ratings will get a one-time $4,000 bonus. This will benefit CMSD’s best teachers and is perhaps the only detail deserving of praise.
Cleveland’s capitulation is discouraging, especially given the plan’s potential and the manner in which it fell apart. As the fact-finding report depressingly noted, “Neither time nor resources have been expended to build out the system. As a consequence, the District lost the opportunity to lead the country with respect to innovation where compensation systems are concerned.”
Cleveland’s is a cautionary tale about the importance of what happens in the weeds after a law passes. One conclusion to draw is that the details related to CMSD’s teacher pay plan should have been better prescribed in law, leaving no room for either gridlock or shirking of responsibility by either party. It might also point to the obvious fact that it’s very difficult to achieve change with so many parties at the table—and that’s why policymakers feel they have to resort to “top-down” policy changes like the Youngstown Plan. I’d venture to guess that most policymakers and leaders would like to achieve local buy-in and cooperation—at the very least, few would eschew it on principle. Ohio lawmakers left some details open for CMSD and the union to sort out for themselves—respecting local autonomy and not wanting to over-prescribe policy details. Yet this is where the plan dissipated.
Perhaps the most daunting takeaway is that sustainable change is often resisted, stalled, or derailed due to cognitive inertia—a psychology term that describes what happens when long-held beliefs endure even in the face of counterevidence. When it comes to teacher pay, there seem to be deeply ingrained beliefs that best way to pay teachers is the old, industrial-era manner in which we’ve always done it (despite evidence to the contrary). Excellent teachers stand to benefit the most from differentiated pay systems. Developing and effective teachers do, too—by receiving meaningful professional development and seeing improvements over time. Only the least effective educators stand to lose anything. Yet teachers aren’t coming out in droves to demand better pay systems that develop and reward them—not in Cleveland and not in most of Ohio.
Bipartisan backing and early teacher buy-in in Cleveland clearly were not enough to prevent the model’s breakdown and the district’s default to a system that largely treats all teachers equally. It may be tempting to conclude from the collapse of CMSD’s promising teacher-pay plan that the law should have been more specific, or that top-down reforms may work better to overcome local gridlock. An equally plausible observation—and one that education reformers may do well to consider—is that until prevailing opinion changes within the profession itself, improvements to teacher pay models will be difficult to sustain. Even heavily prescribed plans can be reversed later. Meanwhile, teachers themselves should consider how moving away from a factory model of compensation to one differentiated for performance and skills is one key step toward reaching a long-held goal: professionalizing teaching.