Bigger Paychecks for Better Teachers

This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

Lately, lots of ink has been spilled about how to weed out ineffective teachers. From a recent court ruling in California that could eliminate tenure as that state knows it to the incessant barrage of headlines about bad actors in our classrooms, you might think that this is the key to solving our nation’s education crisis.

The view from the front lines is different. As a teacher who has worked both with talented colleagues and people who should no longer be in the profession, it’s clear to me that, while we need to remove terrible educators, our public schools would benefit far more from consistent efforts to retain the great ones.

These are the teachers who far too often we see leaving for other careers where their talents can be recognized and rewarded.

The impact that one great teacher has on a group of students has been well documented over the years. Researchers at Stanford University, for instance, found that students who had even one year with an excellent educator had higher earning power as adults, thus highlighting the potential for great teachers to reduce poverty.

While there are plenty of ways to encourage more talented educators to enter the profession and stay in it, one obvious one is to finally compensate teachers for excellence, rather than solely for seniority and advanced degrees.

This month, the education nonprofit TNTP issued a report showing how lock-step teacher pay systems, which are in place in 90% of U.S. school districts, including New York City’s, are preventing districts from attracting and retaining the best teachers. The report argues that by paying teachers more at the outset, we can recruit better talent, and by recognizing their contributions to the classroom, we can keep them.

That resonates with my experience in a high-poverty high school in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, where I saw huge teacher turnover year after year. Even the most optimistic and idealistic young educators would realize they could work at any other school in the city and be paid exactly the same without the daily stress of such a challenging school environment.

As a young teacher-leader, I often felt like the biggest part of my job was convincing my colleagues to stay. Of course, despite my cajoling, there was one thing I couldn’t offer: a better salary.

Research backs up the positive impact of smart performance pay systems. Bonuses for effective teachers in Tennessee’s neediest schools had a positive effect on teacher retention while remaining cost-effective for districts.

In Washington, D.C., teachers with multiple years of high performance ratings, particularly those working in high-poverty schools, get permanent base salary increases. It’s working: Highly rated educators are getting even better and are more likely to stay in the classroom.

But the new teachers’ contract in New York City maintains its antiquated, lock-step pay structure. Why?

Maybe because performance pay continues to have a bad name in New York City. We often hear that the policy was tried and failed. It’s true that between 2007 and 2010, the city awarded bonuses to high-performing schools. But those schools were told to distribute the extra dollars however they deemed appropriate — and in almost all cases, they distributed extra funds evenly among all their teachers.

The most commonly cited argument against performance pay is that determining who should receive it is too difficult. But that argument is losing legs as more districts adopt multi-measured evaluation systems that have the potential to assess teacher effectiveness based on factors including classroom observations, student growth and student surveys.

Coupled with a fair and comprehensive teacher evaluation system, performance pay has the potential to work wonders. Teachers may not be in it for the money, but that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve to be recognized for our excellence.

Chris Fazio is a high school ELA teacher in Forest Hills, Queens. He was recently a member of an Educators 4 Excellence — New York Teacher Policy Team that advocated for performance pay.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP