Teacher Support for Differentiated Pay

Blog Post
May 18, 2008

Differentiated teacher pay is gaining in popularity among education reformers and policymakers. Currently, most teachers are paid under single salary schedules that take into account only two teacher attributes: years of experience and education credentials. Differentiated pay reforms give teachers more money based a wider variety of factors, such as teaching assignments, skills, or performance. Some teachers and teachers unions, however, are reluctant to embrace non-traditional financial incentives. This opposition is often viewed as an insurmountable obstacle to teacher reform.

But it's simply not true that teachers monolithically oppose all types of differentiated pay. While tying pay to student test scores remains unpopular with teachers, many support other types of financial incentives. And according to a recent teacher survey from Education Sector, teacher attitudes about differentiated pay reforms have become more positive in recent years, particularly among younger teachers.

The survey asked teachers about five different types of differentiated pay, and compared their answers to a previous survey by Public Agenda in 2003 that asked similar questions. Teachers were most likely (by far) to support additional pay for "teachers who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools." In the Education Sector survey, 80 percent of teachers "strongly" or "somewhat" favored giving these type of financial incentives—an increase from 70 percent of teachers in the 2003 Public Agenda survey.

The other categories of differentiated pay—in descending popularity—were increased compensation for teachers who: receive accreditation from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS --64 percent of teachers favor this incentive); consistently receive outstanding evaluations by their principals (58 percent favor); specialize in hard-to-fill subjects such as science or mathematics (53 percent favor). Teachers with fewer than five years of experience were more positive about all of the incentives than teachers with more than 20 years of experience.

Least popular with teachers was pay based on student performance. Only 34 percent of teachers favored incentives for teachers "whose students routinely score higher than similar students on standardized tests," down from 38 percent in 2003. When the question was broadened to include "improved reading levels, teacher evaluations, and classroom tests," still only 44 percent of teachers favored offering financial incentives.

Some reformers who support performance-based teacher pay may find these numbers disheartening. But teachers have legitimate concerns about merit pay, mostly related to whether standardized tests can be fair and objective measures of teacher skills. In addition, teachers are worried about the effect that individual performance-based pay and the associated competitive impulses would have on the collaborative school environment.

Here at Ed Money Watch, we actually think the news from this survey is positive. When teachers can evaluate a salary incentive based on objective indicators, they generally are supportive. Teachers know how much more difficult it is to teach in low-performing schools, and thus they understand paying more for the extra effort required at those jobs. Teachers know how much work it takes to become NBPTS-certified.

The time is ripe to embrace these types of financial incentives. This survey shows that many teachers, particularly newcomers, are open to renegotiating traditional salary schedules based solely on experience and credentials. School administrators need this teacher buy-in and support during the development process in order to make the incentives successful. Well-designed incentive systems can help reduce teacher quality disparities both between and within school districts.

Some more controversial forms of differentiated pay still have significant obstacles to overcome, but teachers appear to be growing more receptive—if they view the foundation for financial incentives as legitimate. Modifying teacher salary schedules will be a long-term, step-by-step process, and this survey indicates several good starting points.