People go into professions because they think it will be personally fulfilling, financially rewarding, or both. Unfortunately for teachers, after about five years, many decide that teaching kids no longer meets either or both of those criteria.

How can that be? Teachers enter the profession full of hope and idealism: they are going to make the world a better place, one mind at a time. With all the testing mandates, merit pay based on student test scores, mediocre salaries, and a general lack of respect teachers experience both inside and outside the classroom, many teachers decide that they were in fact too idealistic.

My husband used to work as a corporate attorney here in Atlanta at a large law firm. While he enjoyed his job, the hours were long and he spent many nights working until midnight or later. But his firm paid him well and he appreciated the challenging nature of the work.

The pay seemed to indicate: society values what you do and we (the firm) want to make sure you know it. After four years, he left his job at a large law firm and took a job with the state developing infrastructure projects. It wasn’t because the state of Georgia paid more—it was because he knew that he would enjoy the work more, he would be able directly serve the public, and he would get to have more time with his family.

Teachers, however, are expected to work the long hours, get paid a very average salary, and then get somewhere between scorned and forgotten by society.

What can we do to pay teachers in a way that demonstrates that we as a society value their work while not imposing additional mandates that ultimately chip away at the efficacy of the profession? And, beyond higher pay, what can we do to keep highly-skilled educators?

Here are a few suggestions that I think will help get the conversation going in the right direction.

Decentralize school districts.

If school districts hire competent, fair superintendents and regional superintendents, principals, and assistant principals, then there shouldn’t be a problem giving these individuals more control over personnel decisions and pay raises.

For example, if a principal knows that her assistant principals are experts in their academic areas, she can feel confident that when each assistant principal conducts an observation of individual teachers, the observation will reflect an accurate picture of the teacher’s performance.

The private sector does this all the time. Not that I’m a supporter of the mentality that universally says: “Well, it works in the corporate world, so it must work in education.” However, sometimes certain ideas can be applied in education, and I think having more freedom to pay teachers based on observations (and not just 10-minute observations twice a semester) could be a model to consider.

If assistant principals could observe teachers and combine this with other factors (as private schools do) when determining a teacher’s performance, then positive marks on these annual reviews could lead to increased pay for such teachers. (However, everyone knows that no boss is perfect, so these mechanisms for increased pay would be inherently flawed. Some – especially in the charter movement — would argue that they would prefer this method of salary as opposed to an unexciting incremental salary schedule.)

Give teachers more autonomy – and reward best practices (not necessarily test scores) with increased funding for specific teacher classrooms or school or with increased pay.

Salary isn’t everything to teachers. According to Thomas Smith, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s education school, “Higher pay doesn’t necessarily lead to a better retention rate…[Some] studies suggest that teachers are more interested in working at schools where the conditions of work are good rather than in getting paid more.” Read more about teacher retention in this article from The Atlantic.

In a recent interview with the NEA (National Education Association), writer Jim Walker asked this of Dr. Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania: “What drives low job satisfaction among teachers?” He responded:

“Salary is definitely a factor, but it’s not the most important one. The data consistently show us that a big issue is how much voice, how much say, do teachers have collectively in the school-wide decisions that affect their jobs? Are teachers treated as professionals? That’s a huge issue. Coupled with that is giving individual teachers discretion and autonomy in their own classroom. Teachers are micromanaged. They have been saying for a long time that one size doesn’t fit all, all students are different. But they’re told to stick to the scripted curriculum, which might work for a weaker teacher but it drives good teachers nuts. And for beginning teachers, the lack of support is a key issue. The poorer schools and the urban schools have higher levels of turnover overall because they tend to – not always – have worse working conditions. They’re usually the

Giving teachers autonomy – if you hire good teachers – improves teacher satisfaction which will improve teacher retention which will improve student achievement.

most centralized and the most micromanaged in this era of accountability.”

Giving teachers autonomy – if you hire good teachers – improves teacher satisfaction which will improve teacher retention which will improve student achievement.

In addition to this, it makes a little more sense to hold teachers accountable (or pay them more) if states and districts actually give teachers more autonomy. Marguerite Roza, in her book Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?, argues that if we are going to hold individual teachers accountable for student performance, then we should give them the ability to innovate within their classrooms and spend school funds at their discretion.

“Simply put,” she explains, “federal and state policies are designed to hold schools accountable for student performance, yet decisions about resource use are mostly made anywhere but at the school” (Roza, p. 63).

On the other hand, she also explains that many teachers – if they could choose between higher pay or changes made within the classroom (like class size reduction or more planning time) – would choose a higher pay once “all reforms are put into a cost-equivalent trade-off” (p. 58). So for a $5,000 pay raise versus $5,000 to reduce their class size by 2 students, almost 90% said they would prefer the raise.

If we are going to hold teachers accountable, then perhaps they need to have more autonomy within their classroom. And if their ideas don’t work, then hold them accountable. Schools could take steps to address repeated examples of low teacher performance by pairing them with highly-skilled veteran teachers or by monitoring different aspects of their teaching habits.

Micromanaging the actions of every teacher – regardless of skill – irritates the best teachers and drains them of energy that could have been spent designing innovative lessons or providing thoughtful feedback for student learning — things which actually have been proven to improve student achievement.

Pay teachers for experience.

In many other professions, people are compensated for experience, not just performance. Companies want to hold onto their most valued aspect: their workforce. While the data do not show that experience necessarily correlates with student achievement, data repeatedly show that teacher attrition does contribute to low student achievement. If that is the case, then figuring out a way to retain one’s workforce should be a priority of a district.

In my opinion, teachers should not only be compensated for time spent teaching, but also for highly-marked observations as conducted by talented administrators, principals, and superintendents. The combination of these factors is better than current merit pay models that weigh student test scores at 50%. With merit pay policies that weigh test scores this heavily, it will invariably discourage teachers from teaching in schools where students are really struggling to pass state tests. We should not pass anything that would discourage highly-skilled teachers from teaching in low-performing skills.

Increase pay for teachers in Title I and/or low-performing schools

In Fulton County, the school district tried to incentivize teachers to teach in some of the lower performing schools in the county by offering $20,000 extra per year. Sadly, only 32 out of 375 eligible top teachers opted to teach at these lower performing schools, citing issues like not wanting to “make longer commutes out of their neighborhoods”

Clearly this is not a solution that will solve the issue, but it will help motivate at least some teachers to teach in low-performing schools. If we give educators different options with different incentives, I believe teachers will feel more satisfied with their jobs and will be less likely to leave. People stay in jobs because they feel they have some control over their decisions; however, when people feel as if they are powerless over their own lives, people tend to feel frustrated and eventually give up.

In using a model such as this, teachers could always be paid a guaranteed base salary, with room for additional pay. If we pay teachers more to teach in low-performing or low-income schools and if we separately pay teachers more based on different observations and artifacts (and perhaps high test scores), then I believe districts could potentially attract (and retain) a variety of highly-qualified, satisfied teachers.

For 10 additional factors to consider when designing a teacher compensation plan, click here.

Conclusion

We need to rethink the way that we pay teachers. It says a lot about a society that pays its educators almost $100,000 less than it pays its corporate attorneys. And even then, we must remember that job satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and reasonable autonomy might actually be more important to people than extra money – especially when it’s based on a very unreliable indicator of teacher quality like standardized test scores.

The purpose of merit pay is to, theoretically, improve the quality and retention of high-qualified teachers. If this is the case, let’s implement policies that attract and incentivize teachers to stay working in the profession – especially in low-performing schools – instead of punishing teachers with punitive merit-pay (based on test scores), suffocating bureaucracy, and mounds of inconsequential paperwork.