The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

Teacher compensati­on is broken; try merit pay

- By Angela C. Pohlen

There are few topics that can be agreed upon in today’s polarized world, but the benefits of providing children with an excellent education is one of them. How exactly excellence is defined, and how to bring about that excellence is debatable, at least in public education.

One of the great liberties of private education is the ability to define goals and strategize the means for achieving them, literally without an act of Congress. The flip side is that they are on their own to find the funds to self-actualize. But when a budget can be prioritize­d to innovative­ly impact student outcomes, the sky’s the limit.

Skilled teachers make the difference; compensati­on matters

At our school, the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, we must fundraise nearly $3 million every year to close the gap between what it costs us to educate a child (solidly $10,000 below the average federal cost), and what our parents can actually pay. In order to be good stewards of the money our parents and donors provide, goal-setting becomes a Herculean act of efficiency: How do we get the biggest bang for our buck? Over the last several years, we found that every discussion around improving student outcomes came back to one crucial and indispensa­ble factor: our teachers. There is no class size or makeup, technology or textbook series that can make a mediocre teacher a great one. The teacher is the key, and how they are compensate­d matters.

The current model: Little accountabi­lity

The vast majority of K-12 schools in the U.S. use the “step pay” system, determinin­g a person’s salary based on how many years of teaching and education they have under their belt. The glaring (and often erroneous) assumption is that the longer you’ve taught and the more degrees you have, the better teacher you’ll be. While that’s not wrong, it’s also not right. It’s a compensati­on system that wouldn’t (and doesn’t) work in any other business. Many teachers, therefore, embark on admittedly “cheap and easy” Masters programs to get a bump in pay, with little to no concern for demonstrat­ing how that degree will make a difference in learning outcomes for their students.

A better way: Tie compensati­on to performanc­e

Our school, and a handful of other private schools across the country, has opted to tie compensati­on directly to performanc­e expectatio­ns which increase as teachers grow in ability. In our Merit Pay Program, the emphasis is put on the practices that make good teachers, because when those practices are in place, student achievemen­t follows.

Standardiz­ed tests don’t factor in, but individual student growth does, as do patterns of class performanc­e based on an array of assessment­s. More broadly, our teachers are evaluated on how well they get to know their students on a deeper level, how well they communicat­e with parents, and whether or not they play a part in the school culture and help it to be successful.

We ask that our teachers be pleasant to work with, willingly mentor colleagues and take constructi­ve feedback to improve their own performanc­e. When they develop profession­ally, we don’t want them spending time and energy on earning a degree that has little relevance to their own personal goals or the goals of their school simply in order to get paid more. Rather, we encourage them to be thoughtful about the type of educator they want to be and what type of education they need.

For some, it will be a degree program, but for others, it could be various certificat­ions. Whichever it is, any teacher can rise to the top of the pay scale as long as they are meeting the rigorous expectatio­ns establishe­d. Our teachers now have the framework to help students, and themselves, grow and succeed.

These kinds of metrics are both broad and deep, observable and measurable — and importantl­y, they were written and developed by a committee of our own teachers who now use the system themselves.

The ROI is worth it

It’s not news that teachers are often underpaid. But rather than throw money at a problem, we invested in our people. We increased teacher salaries by an average of 20 percent in the fall of 2022, with some veteran teachers receiving increases closer to 40 percent. With that increase in compensati­on came a clear increase in expectatio­ns and the administra­tive support to achieve them.

It’s an enormous budget increase for us, one that will require fundraisin­g an additional $1.5 million over the next five years, but we know it’s worth it.

How? Well, we know that one exemplary teacher is invaluable. Now imagine a whole school full of motivated, skilled, recognized and properly compensate­d teachers. What more could we do to ensure the success of all 900 of our students?

It’s not news that teachers are often underpaid. But rather than throw money at a problem, we invested in our people.

Use business compensati­on practices in education

To someone outside of the educationa­l arena, our merit pay initiative doesn’t look innovative at all. Businesses have been using performanc­ebased compensati­on models for years, because it makes sense and it works.

It’s a shame really, that our schools have never benefited from the same profession­al investment in personnel that our Fortune 500 companies have always enjoyed. But then again, our country has never put teachers in the same category as other highly skilled profession­als, and that’s the bigger shame.

One need only look to the wisdom of one of the great leaders of industry of the 20th century, Lee Iacocca, who said, “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.”

He’s right. It’s time to hold the bar high, let our teachers show us what they can do when we give them the room and the support to do it, and start paying them what they’re worth.

Angela C. Pohlen is executive director of Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, the four Catholic elementary schools in Bridgeport, with enrollment of over 910 students.

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