A digital colleague that I admire and respect greatly is Clay Burell, who blogs over at Beyond School.  In response to my recent post about Bill Gates and Merit Pay, Clay wrote:

I had a conversation last week about merit pay, and why I didn’t believe in it. I said it pissed me off to no end that I _knew_ from all sorts of objective observations that I worked harder and more successfully than many of my colleagues, yet earned nothing more for it – BUT, until a system was implemented that could determine what we mean by ‘merit,’ and avoid causing all of us to teach to tests and thus damage student learning, I was still against it.

What’s the best solution to this dilemma that you’ve thought or read?

This is good stuff, Clay.  The thought that a teacher should embrace performance pay only when the system designed supports responsible teaching really resonates with me.  I’ve written more than once about how my teaching has changed in response to today’s accountability culture and it ain’t pretty.  Supporting alternative compensation models in any system that didn’t consider the consequences that new performance measures have on teaching and learning would be unethical, wouldn’t it.

As far as the best solutions go, I think that Denver’s got it right.  Working with district leaders, Denver’s teacher union developed a system of compensation that is far more complex than most of the solutions that are proposed today.  Called ProComp, Denver’s plan rewards teachers differently for earning professional development units that support the district’s mission and vision, for working in hard to serve schools or hard to staff assignments, for producing results on standardized tests, and for earning satisfactory ratings on evaluations.

What I like the most about Denver’s plan, though, is that teachers have the opportunity to earn additional compensation for meeting two “student growth objectives.”  These are measurable learning targets that teachers write on their own in conjunction with their building leaders.  Then, during the course of the school year, teachers collect evidence demonstrating whether or not students have achieved the goals that teachers set out to reach.

Simple yet powerful, huh?  Reward teachers for systematically reflecting on their practice.  Those are the kinds of behaviors we want to see from every teacher, so let’s incentivize them.

What I also like about Denver’s plan is that teachers have clear avenues for increasing their salaries.  If I’m a young educator who has a passion for earning more, I can decide to go and work in a hard to serve school and add to my compensation.  Likewise, if I’m a new father who is swamped with day to day life as it is, I can cycle out and work in a less demanding school for a few years.

Think about the flexibility that the district builds for itself with Procomp.  Today’s hard to staff subject or hard to serve school is unlikely to be tomorrow’s, right?  With Procomp, Denver can choose what it wants to incentivize and make changes over time.  Doing that with professional development units and credits makes even more sense.  The kinds of knowledge and skills that teachers need to be successful today are going to be far different from the kinds of knowledge and skills that teachers are going to need to be successful tomorrow—-so why not take a shorter term view of how we differentiate salaries and stipends for continuing education?

Does any of this make sense?

I guess what I’m saying is a successful compensation plan has to be flexible for both teachers and taxpayers.  Teachers should be able to make concious choices that can increase their salary—working in incentivized buildings, taking incentivized professional development, collecting data in a systematic way that documents their impact—-and districts should be able to conciously decide the kinds of things that they most want to incentivize in their district.

Today’s compensation systems—based on years of experience and master’s degrees—just plain lack the ability to respond to changing realities.

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