As the United States emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, workers around the country are leaving their jobs at record rates. Mid-career employees between the ages of 30 and 45 feature disproportionately in what’s been dubbed the “Great Resignation.”
Researchers say this is in response to stagnant wages amid ever-steeper workloads and the changes in earning potential that follow the ebbs and flows of the U.S. labor market. But some careers, like teaching, have long existed outside the realm of the open market, despite their importance to a functioning society.
Research shows that teachers are impacted by a “wage penalty” of about 20 percent—meaning compared to someone with a similar degree, teachers earn only eighty cents on the dollar. This can lead to difficulties with retention, but can also affect the quality of teachers in public schools. Not only do teachers earn less than other professionals, but in most school districts their salary increases are not dependent on performance.
A few districts, most notably those in Washington, D.C., and Dallas have developed systems to measure teacher quality and incentivize highly effective teaching practices. In these districts, the theory goes, the better you teach, the more you’re paid. The strategy relies on what economists call “efficiency wage theory,” which posits that increasing wages based on performance leads to greater output and lower employee turnover, says Emma García, a senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute.
There are three main ways that teacher pay impacts student outcomes, García says. More people will consider teaching as a potential career path, they will continue teaching for longer and they’ll be incentivized to improve their teaching.
“The most important component of the teacher shortage is that this is not a new problem in U.S. education at all,” says García, whose organization has been warning about such shortages for years. “It’s been in the making for several years, this has just made existing problems worse.”
What Makes a Good Teacher?
Dallas and D.C. are interesting test cases because they seek to reward how effective teachers are at increasing student learning, says Shannon Holston, the Chief of Policy and Programs at the National Center for Teacher Quality.
What makes a great teacher is more open to debate, but Holston says it’s one who can meaningfully connect with students, who can create engaging lessons based on standards and help students engage with that material. Rewarding these types of behaviors is a big change from how teacher compensation is usually calculated.
“I think one challenge for the teaching profession is that with traditional salary schedules, no matter how great of a teacher you are, compared to the teacher in the next classroom over, you’ll earn the same base amount,” Holston says. “Or, you could be a fourth year teacher, who, compared to a teacher with 15 years of experience, is way more effective, but is earning $15,000 less.”
But defining and measuring teacher quality is incredibly complicated, as is making a direct connection between teacher quality and student performance, García adds.
Dallas’ Teacher Excellence Initiative measures teacher quality based on student achievement scores, teacher performance and student experience surveys. These three categories are weighted differently in recognition of the differences between different subjects and grade levels, but teacher performance always makes up at least half the measurement and student experience makes up the smallest proportion. Teacher performance is judged on a 19-point rubric that includes factors like preparedness, classroom culture and collaboration. Student achievement is scored based on test scores and individual improvement.
Data from before the pandemic indicates the district was able to retain more than 95 percent of its most proficient teachers. Those teachers also received bigger pay boosts than other teachers. Yet many of those high performing teachers are clustered in already high-achieving schools.
In D.C., teacher quality is based on a teacher’s instructional practice. There, a rubric looks at factors like student achievement and instructional culture. Also weighted are student surveys and teachers’ contributions to the school community outside of the classroom.
Teachers who wind up rated “ineffective” are almost always fired, according to a city-commissioned study, which looked at data from 2017-2019. About 36 percent of teachers rated “minimally effective”—about 3 percent of teachers overall—are fired, with another 16 percent leaving on their own.
D.C. Public Schools have been using their “IMPACT plus” model for over a decade. Since 2009, D.C. teachers have been eligible for annual bonuses up to $25,000 if they earn “highly effective” ratings on their teacher evaluations. This means a highly effective teacher in DCPS can earn $1 million in bonuses over a 40 year career. This has led to a 93 percent retention rate among highly effective teachers in the district and a 94 percent retention rate among high-performing teachers at the district’s most impoverished schools, the district says.
Still, the evaluation system has been criticized by teachers and administrators as being subjective, and contributing to a culture of fear in schools, according to the city’s study, which also found that white teachers received higher evaluation scores than their Black and Hispanic peers.
A Model for the Future?
When D.C. first implemented the IMPACT system, “it was extraordinarily controversial,” says Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education who has studied D.C.’s model since its inception. When the program was first used in 2009, it was not considered “politically credible.”
“Just having a genuinely consequential system of teacher performance assessment is really unusual in American public education,” Dee said. “But then also, when we got to look at it more closely, I was really surprised by its sophistication.”
When most people think of measuring teacher quality, they likely think of test scores. But expert groups, including the Economic Policy Institute, have warned against putting too much weight on test scores when evaluating teachers. D.C.’s IMPACT model “critically keyed in on something that teachers actually control, which is the character of their day-to-day practice in the classroom,” Dee says.
“We found that the teacher incentives created by the program only really started to change teacher retention and teacher performance after the summer of 2011, when the first set of teachers who were ‘minimally effective’ twice in a row were dismissed, because then it was clear that the impact would be enduring,” Dee says.
The reasons more districts aren’t following D.C.’s lead are both political and logistical. Designing and implementing such a system can be a challenge. Perhaps the bigger obstacles to overcome are the political ones, caused by local elected officials, administrators and teachers unions.
“IMPACT is a really compelling proof point for what teacher performance assessment can achieve in US public schools,” Dee says. “But I suspect it’s a proof point that will go wholly unreplicated because of the logistical and political impediments to setting up something like this.”
Much like in other industries, the COVID-19 pandemic may have a long term impact on how much teachers are paid, Holston says, adding that some additional funding provided in response to the pandemic is being used for retention bonuses. States around the country are also revising state budgets to include teacher pay increases.
“I think the teaching profession has experienced some challenges and shortage areas,” she says. “The tightening labor market has caused states and districts to rethink some of their structures, including compensation, and we think that’s a good thing.”
“By really considering pay and compensation strategies, districts can attract and retain the kinds of individuals we want to attract into the teaching profession.”