Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teacher Unions and New Forms of Teacher Compensation: Engaging Teacher Unions in the Substantive Work of Redesigning Teacher Pay Is an Essential Precondition to Making Progress

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Teacher Unions and New Forms of Teacher Compensation: Engaging Teacher Unions in the Substantive Work of Redesigning Teacher Pay Is an Essential Precondition to Making Progress

Article excerpt

In 2004, the announcement of Denver's path-breaking ProComp ignited a fervor around new forms of teacher pay. A cooperative effort of the Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, ProComp broke from tradition. Rather than paying teachers on the basis of years of experience and college credits, Denver would now pay teachers for added knowledge and skills, teaching in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, good performance reviews, and improved student scores on Colorado's annual achievement tests.

ProComp opened the compensation floodgates. In 2006, the federal government launched the $99 million annual Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), which allowed states and school districts to compete for funds to design and implement new forms of teacher pay. The TIF appropriation quadrupled in 2010.

Individual states--Minnesota, Texas, and Florida among them--also climbed on the bandwagon, investing millions of dollars in rethinking teacher compensation. Dozens of local school districts followed suit. New ways of paying teachers were hailed as significant strategies for improving education because proponents claimed they would enhance teacher practice, attract and retain teachers in low-performing schools and in shortage subject areas, and raise student achievement.

Experience with new forms of teacher pay suggests that we still have much to learn about the efficacy of this strategy. Can dollars alone produce changes in teachers' practice that lead to improved student achievement? Will money encourage well-qualified teachers to choose assignments in challenging schools and high-need subjects? How much money is necessary to seed and sustain change? Answers to these questions likely will come with time and experience.

However, there is an answer to one central question about using teacher compensation as an education improvement strategy: New pay plans can't be summarily imposed on teachers. Districts and states that have tried this tactic met with massive resistance, and their pay plans foundered. Experience with Denver, TIF grantees, and other compensation programs has taught us that teachers need to be part of the process of development, and they need to own the pay plan that emerges.

Teacher unions play a critical role here. They can shape teachers' views about new forms of compensation. Casting a critical eye on the myriad proposals swirling about them, unions can serve as crucial partners in designing and implementing new pay programs, or they can apply the brakes and stop plans from moving from paper to practice.

The role of unions in reforming teacher pay is changing. Why are they now feeling the heat to reconsider the longstanding way of paying teachers? What are the positions of the two national teacher unions with regard to new forms of pay? How have local school districts and their teacher unions responded to calls to alter salary structures? And what have we learned about what it takes to engage unions in designing new, more robust compensation programs?


Most U.S. teachers are paid on what is called the single salary schedule. An artifact of the civil service system, the single salary schedule awards increases on the basis of years of experience and earned college credits.

First introduced in Denver and Des Moines in 1921, the single salary schedule became widespread following World War II, when teachers were in short supply. The unfair and discriminatory pay practices prevalent in most school districts hampered recruiting new teachers. Elementary teachers, most of whom were women, were paid less than their high school counterparts, most of whom were men. Black teachers were paid less than white teachers. Nepotism often played an open role in determining salaries.

The single salary system equalized pay. It removed politics, race, and gender from the process and made teacher pay both more equitable and more predictable. …

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