Strategies for Effective Educator Compensation

The increase in experimentation with compensation reform across the country has resulted in a growing body of research documenting preliminary insights into the implementation of past reforms and current compensation programs.

School leaders considering compensation reform in their district can look to these examples for lessons learned. The following four strategies are derived from current research.

•  Set clear performance goals for the program. School systems must first clearly define the goal of the compensation program. Without clear, measurable objectives, the effect of the program cannot be evaluated. The goals must be able to say what specifically the program is designed to do. Expected causal links between the performance-based pay program and the desired outcomes may include increased student achievement, higher retention of teachers and improved classroom instruction.

Further, program goals should recognize nuances in desired outcomes. For example, student achievement scores probably will not increase over the course of one or two years. But if the program sets benchmarks to assess the progress made toward meeting goals, midcourse corrections can be made where necessary, which may keep the program from being perceived as “failing.” 

•  Engage stakeholders at the beginning of the design process. As a recent catchphrase cautions, education reform initiatives should happen with teachers, not to teachers. One key lesson learned by performance-based pay initiatives is that engaging stakeholders early on in the process is essential to gaining and sustaining teacher buy-in.

The exclusion of teachers from the design process may lead to vocal opposition. Once the process is viewed as contentious, its chances of success decline significantly. For example, a 2006 teacher pay plan in Little Rock, Ark., was designed without involvement of the teachers. The teachers opposed the plan, believing their feedback was not valued by the district.

Closely linked to stakeholder engagement is communication. Districts should develop and implement a process to discuss details with the public. The Center for Educator Compensation Reform has developed resources that provide further ideas for communication and stakeholder engagement, including examples of school district communication plans. Using clear and consistent language when communicating with stakeholders, media and the general public is vital. (Click here for related article.

•  Use multiple measures of teacher performance. A significant portion of the education community is extremely cautious about the use of student achievement data to determine teacher effectiveness. One static data point is not enough to fully understand teacher effectiveness.

The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality has developed a five-point definition of teacher effectiveness that provides a nuanced understanding of teacher outputs. To obtain such a nuanced perspective of effective classroom instruction, more rigorous teacher evaluation processes must be developed. Unfortunately, a recent report by the New Teacher Project titled “The Widget Effect” indicates much work remains for devising teacher evaluations that measure effective classroom instruction in a meaningful way. Many districts experimenting with alternative pay plans are developing such evaluation rubrics. 

•  Conduct rigorous evaluations of teacher compensation programs. School systems looking to implement performance-based pay programs, or other compensation-related initiatives, must evaluate progress in a rigorous manner. The clear performance goals that should be in place to make up a program’s logic model must translate into answerable research questions that can determine the quality of program implementation and if the program is having the desired effect. Without meaningful evaluation data, districts and states will continue to hedge their bets.

Education policy does not exist in a vacuum. Local implementation has its own context to consider when designing and implementing compensation reform. Even more important is the newly developing idea of systemic reform related to human capital management — the focus on how any one district-level reform aligns with other reforms.

— Sabrina Laine, Amy Potemski and Cortney Rowland