The way teacher pay works in Memphis and across U.S. is simple—teachers come in at a base salary (in Memphis it’s about $40,000 a year), and they get a raise every year, and teachers with master’s degrees and PhDs earn a little more. Supporters of this system say it is fair and equitable, but some education reformers and economists think the way we pay teachers in the U.S. is inefficient, and nationwide that’s where most of the money in public education goes.
As a result, changing the way teachers are paid is on the wish-list of people like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, school reformer Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates. As a part of their work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Memphis City Schools are coming up with a plan to do just that.
“The pay system is on auto-pilot, there is no rational thinking behind it,” said Michael Podgursky a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies teacher pay. “We know you’ve been here in the school district for 10 years and you have a master’s degree, so this is what your pay is. No one has to think about that …. No one has to go in and evaluate you and compare you to your peers. It is just, it is not efficient.” He laughs, “That’s not the way efficient organizations work.”
There are academic studies that show that the best teachers aren’t necessarily the ones with the most experience, and having an advanced degree doesn’t make you any better in the classroom. “Neither of the factors that are rewarded on the schedule—experience and these graduate credits—are not associated with teacher effectiveness as measured by student achievement,” said Podgursky.
Podgursky says school districts can measure student achievement however they want—with test data or classroom observations, or some combination of the two, “The point here is the typical school uses none of that. None of that plays a role.”
That’s what the Memphis City Schools are planning to change. In the new system Memphis is developing, there will be three levels of pay—novice, professional, and master. What level a teacher is on, and what they’re paid, will be determined mostly by their score on the Teaching Effectiveness Measure. The measure includes classroom observations, student test scores, and feedback from parents and students, and it was developed in partnership with the Gates Foundation.
The exact details of the new pay system are still being hammered out, but when the system is finalized, there is one more thing Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash would like to see factor into a teacher’s pay, “Why not let’s all look at and see whether we are taking a bigger bite out of poverty, whether economic segregation in the Mid-South region, and Memphis in particular—if that gap is closing.”
Cash said this shared component is important to him because of the nature of teaching, “It’s not tennis or golf, you know. Teamwork makes the dream work, and education, it is not an individualized profession,” Cash said. “Your score depends on the teacher before you; and the teacher after you, [their] score depends on you, what you got out of the students. So, you are interconnected. We are all interconnected. Superintendents are judged by the performance of the whole system.”
As Cash envisions it, the new system will be a lot more complicated.
“I’m not talking about, you know, if the school gets a grade, then I get the same grade,” Cash said. “I’m talking about over time we can somehow put a ROI, or an algorithm to that.”
In the new system Memphis is developing, top-paid teachers stand to make considerably more than the top-paid teachers in the old system. Right now teacher pay in Memphis is capped at about $70,000 a year.
It’s the hope that paying teachers this way will help keep top-talent in public education. Right now, about 40 percent of Memphis’ teachers leave before they get to their fourth year of teaching. Nationwide that number is about 30 percent, and after five years nearly half of all new teachers are gone. Supporters also hope pay reform will lead to better educated kids. The Denver Public Schools changed the way they paid teachers back in 2006. Daniel Goldhaber studied the Denver reforms for the Center for Education & Data Research—and he says the pay reforms improved students' test scores, or at least he thinks they did.
“Student achievement in Denver was clearly rising,” Goldhaber said. “It was difficult to pin that down definitively to the pay reform ... because there are lots of things that the district is doing at the same as time as they implemented pay reform.”
Executive Director of the Memphis Education Association Ken Foster is not convinced changing teacher pay is going to improve education. “I’m willing to try to see if it will work, but I think there are too many variables built into that,” Foster said.
Foster says one of the big advantages of the current system is that it is transparent, fair, and easy to understand, “It doesn’t discriminate for women. It doesn’t discriminate for minorities. It doesn’t discriminate on anything. So everybody knows it, and it’s a fair process. When you move to a different salary schedule, you have to build those kind of fairness issues in as well.”
Memphis plans to hire new teachers into the new pay system in the fall. Teachers already working for the schools can decide whether to sign up for the new system, or stick with the old one.