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Districts that appreciate educators’ knowledge and experience should have a pay plan that shows it.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

With all the chatter these days about merit pay for teachers, there’s not nearly enough listening to the educators who have already developed innovative, collaborative pay plans.

From Helena, Montana, to Portland, Maine, local unions and school districts have put together 21st Century alternative pay plans that reward teachers—not for student test scores or subjective evaluations—but for doing the kinds of things that actually improve the learning environment. None are intended to replace a strong, single salary schedule, but to enhance it.

In Helena, educators commit to career development plans. In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, they get raises for taking—or even teaching—professional development courses. “You can’t go through all this and not be a better teacher!” exclaims third-grade teacher Michelle Preusser, who has risen to the top step through three new professional degrees and certifications.

NEA supports these educators in their efforts to find creative solutions to local problems. Losing new teachers? A program like Portland’s, which pays veteran teachers more to mentor their new colleagues and new teachers more for Portland-specific professional development classes, might be the solution.

Can’t find staff for so-called failing schools? Consider the new contract in Evansville, Indiana, where teachers at some inner-city schools will receive additional training on closing the gaps—and get paid for it.

“Our nation has the capacity to make sure every child in every high-needs school has great teachers,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told a congression­al committee late last year. “President Obama has called for the nation to ‘treat teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable.’ Doing so means not only looking carefully at the research evidence, but also listening to our most accomplished teachers and acting on their advice.”

For its part, the White House and its Administration have made merit pay—that is, pay tied to student test scores—a key condition for states participating in the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. But educators know that test scores aren’t a direct measure of their ability, and just paying teachers more isn’t going to help students do any better. In one of the most recent studies on merit pay, Vanderbilt University researchers found that a statewide Texas bonus pay program had “weakly positive, negative, or negligible effect on student test-score gains.”

In other words, it didn’t work. Because it’s teacher learning that leads to student learning, educators believe.

“It’s about getting people involved in professional activities that relate directly to student learning in their classroom,” says Karen MacDonald, a Portland middle-school teacher for 30 years. That might mean National Board Certification, it might mean a research project that measures the effectiveness of different reading programs, or it might mean taking a class on how to use test scores to improve instruction—all of the kinds of things rewarded by locally bargained alternative pay plans. (Go here for more about Portland’s pay schedule.)

“Obviously we don’t want to tie our merit to test scores,” Preusser says. “If that happens, I want a dorm in the back of the school where the kids can live 24/7.”

Call it old-fashioned, like Mom and apple pie, but NEA still believes a short and strong salary schedule, with a minimum of $40,000 annual pay for teachers, is best. It rewards teachers for things we know make a difference in teacher quality—knowledge and experience—and, at the same time, avoids the capriciousness of typical merit pay plans.

It doesn’t pay you less when your students are distracted from learning by empty bellies and ear infections. Nor does it pay you more for a class full of native English speakers and supportive, college-educated parents—or for loudly agreeing with your principal at staff meetings! (“Yes, yes, you’re a genius! Now do I get a raise?”) A single salary schedule is fair and transparent, and it’s locally bargained or agreed to.

But alternative pay plans—the ones written by teachers and local Association leaders—can also be fair and easy to understand. They provide creative solutions to local problems, and most of all, they make for better teachers. Read on for a quick look at how some educators are faring under their locally bargained pay plans.

Photo by Michael Thomas


Third-grade teacher
20 years’ experience
Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Ten years ago, Manitowoc didn’t have a single National Board Certified teacher and less than a quarter had master’s degrees. Now, thanks to a contract approved almost unanimously by teachers in 1999, nearly half have master’s—and 21 have won that most rigorous certification.

Michelle Preusser has both—plus a professional development certificate focused on differentiating instruction—which means she has earned the salary rewards for working toward advanced degrees or certification. (National Board? Worth a 13 percent boost.) Now, from the top tier of the salary scale, Preusser surveys a body of professional development that has enriched her wallet as well as her classroom. “There’s something wrong if you come out the other side not a better teacher,” she exclaims. “You’re constantly reflecting on your own practice, the way you see the kids, and the way they learn.”

Photo by David Humber


Assistant principal
12 years’ experience
Hamilton County, Tennessee

A few years ago, the Chattanooga urban schools advertised 64 vacant jobs. Just one person applied. So, with the idea of attracting and retaining more great teachers, the Hamilton County Education Association and its district partners negotiated a new contract that provides $5,000 bonuses for moving to “hard-to-staff” schools and up to $10,000 for improving test scores.

LaFrederick Thirkill, a music teacher turned administrator, doesn’t much care for the transfer bonus: “For some teachers it’s merely an opportunity to make more money, as opposed to making a change.” Nor does he approve of the test-score checks that he calls sometimes unfair and often divisive. But Hamilton County also now offers a $4,000 annual bonus for National Board Certification, which Thirkill was the first to earn, and he says the process of certification “had a profound affect on me. I now know how to reflect, as an educator and administrator.” At the same time, as a dozen of his colleagues have followed in his footsteps, “it has changed the perception of inner-city teachers,” he says.

Photo by Kenton Rowe


High school history teacher
3 years’ experience
Helena, Montana

Maybe $36,000 doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty good for a guy three years out of college, living in Helena, Montana, says Ryan Cooney. It’s also a lot more than new teachers here were earning a few years ago (just $23,000). “Our union has done a heck of a job representing us,” he says.

In 2002, with more than half of Helena’s teachers nearing retirement and far too few applicants at their heels, the local Association and district got together to boost salaries with $1 million freed up from early retirement. They also agreed that educators should present “career development plans” to get raises. For his plan, Cooney concentrated on technology in his classroom, creating a Moodle Web page where students and parents have “24/7 access” to assignments, current events, and research (and their teacher). “If you take [the plan] seriously, you really can better yourself as a teacher,” he says.

Photo by Kevin Bruise


Middle school language arts teacher
30 years’ experience
Portland, Maine

After 30 years in the classroom, Karen MacDonald is sitting on top of the salary scale in Portland, but she still hasn’t stopped collaborating with colleagues, helping them become better teachers.

Her latest effort? A series of classes for teachers with three to seven years’ experience, designed to help them learn more about where their students are academically, and how to move them forward. “This is what you need in your instruction,” MacDonald explains.

By taking the Portland-based course, early career teachers can move up along an innovative salary schedule that rewards them for professional learning. MacDonald, a National Board Certified teacher, made her final step up through an ELL endorsement—a key help when nearly 30 percent of Portland’s kids are from refugee countries like Somalia and Iraq. Other colleagues have earned raises through district committee work, curriculum design, and other “above and beyond” assignments.

“I feel like I’m paid as a professional. I also feel the responsibilities that go along with my pay—and that’s good,” MacDonald says.

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Why Money Matters

Why Money Matters
Lack of professional pay shortchanges our schools.