Using economics to influence where teachers go to work

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

The balance of teacher talent and experience in the city’s public schools is often mixed, but for some, the scales are more likely to tip in one direction or the other. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of teacher salary data found that certain types of schools—catch-up high schools for kids left behind and schools with the highest poverty rates—tend to have the lowest-paid teachers on staff. By comparison, selective high schools and elementary gifted centers and magnets have more higher-paid teachers.

Translating pay to experience is fairly straightforward on most union pay scales: Teachers with entry-level credentials and little or no experience earn low salaries; those with more degrees and experience earn more. There is no special consideration, or extra money, awarded to teachers who demonstrate that they are more skilled or effective at their jobs than their peers. Nor are there any financial incentives for those who choose to take on tough assignments in schools where kids are behind and need a lot more support.

A recent survey of teachers in three states found overwhelming support (77 percent) for paying higher salaries to teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Younger teachers, those with 10 years or less experience, were more likely than 20-year veterans to favor this strategy, sometimes referred to as combat pay, and another that would reward teachers whose students made the highest gains on tests.

So it is not surprising that, perhaps with only one exception, teachers unions led by experienced leaders oppose most schemes that would use financial incentives to shift the balance of teacher quality among schools. Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart cites a conventional wisdom of the profession: That the real incentive for teachers to work in tough schools is a sense of duty and the chance to use their talent to make a difference where it is most needed. Providing extra funds to schools where the least-experienced teachers work will not necessarily attract more veterans to work there, she says.

Yet that’s exactly what Chicago Public Schools is considering doing as it moves deliberately toward a more equitable method of allocating its resources. One of the options on the table is to make schools pick up the full tab for the cost of their teachers. Currently, schools like Jones College Prep, where 80 percent of teachers have 10 or more years of experience, do not feel the pinch of paying higher-than-average salaries. By contrast, Crane Achievement Academy, a school for low-achieving students who are not ready for 9th grade, is staffed mostly by teachers with less than five years on the job.

By shifting money around, the thinking goes, schools that have the most difficulty attracting and retaining teachers would have extra funds to hire more experienced teachers or to train and develop the faculty already there. So far, Oakland, Calif., is the only school district that has tried it. More than half of the district’s 105 schools are getting more money now—the second year of this experiment in lump-sum budgeting—than they did previously under the old system.

Here, only charters and a few new Renaissance schools are operating under this version of lump-sum budgeting, also called per-pupil or student-based budgeting, where how much teachers cost matters. Converting the entire district to this system would be a labor economist’s dream come true.

But as budgeting experts rightly point out, it is merely a starting point. More effective, they say, would be a concerted effort between districts and unions to link pay and teacher performance. Shifting money around in school budgets would address an important issue of equity, but alone it may do little to balance the talent scale.

MEA CULPA In this column a couple of months ago, I did not recognize the valued contributions of two outgoing Catalyst editorial board members—Principal Joan Forte of Randolph Elementary and Washington, D.C.,-based journalist Anne Lewis—each of whom served for four years. Thank you both for your support and apologies for the oversight.