Monday, October 18, 2021

Let Me Propose A New Teacher Pay System

One feature of modern ed reform over the last couple of decades has been the attempt to "disrupt" teacher pay. I have an idea, or at least a thought experiment.

Many education disruptors have noted that it seems unfair to pay "good" teachers and "bad" teachers the same amount. To be honest, that thought has occurred to one or two teachers as well. Meanwhile, not a day goes by that some civilian doesn't argue that teachers only work nine months out of the year, so they should get lousy pay.

A variety of alternatives have been proposed and tried. Attempts to link pay to quality flounder because there is no reliable objective way to measure teacher quality so we end up with systems that link teacher pay to test score, resulting in an unfair, complicated, demoralizing mess. Merit pay bonuses are great except that 1) they're invariably tied to a really low base pay and 2) they never work. Also, see above problems with measuring merit. And the problem behind all of these stabs at teacher pay systems is that the goal is to reduce total personnel costs for a school. 

That personnel cost level drives some people from the business world crazy. My district had a board member years ago who ran a concrete business, and the high percentage of district expense that went to personnel drove him crazy, because in private industry, that's just not how it works. 

But if our goal was to come up with a better way to pay teachers, and not just cut costs, I think I've got one. And I stole it from the legal profession.

Billable hours.

Teaching in a classroom? Billable time. Grading papers at home? Billable time. Research and development of lesson plans? Billable time.

Teachers would have to get over the loss of being salaried employees, but school districts would have to start thinking about what they're actually paying for instead of operating on the assumption that if teachers aren't in front of students, they aren't Doing Any Work. 

It would require administrators to be more thoughtful about how they waste teacher time. Want to have forty-seven after school meetings, or drag teachers into pointless PD sessions? Fine--but you have to pay for it. Need teachers to show up before actual report time in order take care of morning clerical stuff? Pay for it. Want a teacher to watch a study hall or patrol the parking lot? Sure--but you'll pay for it. Maybe you'd rather hire some lower-cost personnel to cover non-teaching duties.

Paying a higher hourly rate for experienced teachers makes sense, because experience leads to greater efficiency-- an experienced teacher gets more done in an hour than they did when starting out.

For teachers, this would give some control over their own personal and professional lives, because they get to decide about the trade-off. Now we have a system where teachers are told to feel an obligation to give their infinite all in exchange for a flat rate. Under a billable hours system, you can still decide to give up your weekend to read about the influence of Poe on modern gothic literature, but you make the choice knowing you will get paid for it instead of simply doing it to try to fight off a heavy blanket of guilt. 

Could a system like this be gamed? Sure--but from a district point of view, this is a plus. To game the current system, a teacher just does less (like my not-very-respected previous colleague who never, ever took a piece of paper home). To game a billable hours system, a teacher would have to do more work--a win for the district.

Would districts be incentivized to screw over older, more expensive teachers? Probably--but we're living in that world already. Would some teachers hate the idea of having to punch a clock? Probably. Personally, I'd still have liked knowing that I wasn't donating hour after hour for free.

There would be critical nuts and bolts to work out, like a reasonable hourly rate--that part would be huge, because this system must not end up requiring teachers to bill 100 hours a week just to make a living wage. How to pay coaches and extracurricular advisors, who currently make anywhere from $100 to $0.02 an hour. Monitoring the hours in a way that provides accountability without treating teachers like children (always a challenge for the education system). And maybe a way to index the hours to other factors, like, say, number of students in a class. Teacher contracts would have to be changed to a model that contracts for a certain base number of hours.

The big drawback for districts would be giving up what they quietly love about traditional teacher pay grids-- being able to know fairly precisely what next year's personnel costs will be. Billable hours would make that figure a little harder to predict. And, if cutting personnel costs is your goal, well, it would not reduce personnel costs at all.

But for teachers? More control of your life. Bosses forced to respect your time (if not you). 

I'm not expecting anyone to try this any time soon, and it's in no way a perfect set up, but it's fun to think about. If someone in your neighborhood has done more than think about it, please let me know.


  1. I disagree with this approach for two reasons. First, you'd have to have overtime approved for this to work, and that means they could cut costs dramatically just by not paying overtime.

    More importantly, though, teachers are more like actors than contractors. An actor does a lot of work to prepare for a part, but he gets paid for the performance. We get paid for the performance of teaching class, and the hours we put into it are our choice.

    I'd pay teachers extra for:
    1) additional credentials (makes them more flexible for staffing)
    2) teaching through prep (done now, very lucrative)
    3) much larger stipends for managing clubs. Right now, it's usually a trade off of a few supervisories, and that's just nuts. Teachers could argue for the stipend based on the popularity of the club, hours in, and so on.

  2. On top of some people saying teachers make too much for nine months' work (wonder why so many teachers are leaving then???), many in other industries have so many other perks. My accountant daughter is 26 and making what a teacher in our district with a masters + 20 yrs experience would make. Her office is in Chicago but is working remotely from our home, so she's saving on rent and is visiting my sister and working remotely from there for two weeks. Lucky her! When she travels for business, she gets all the travel points and uses them to go places later for free.

    Meanwhile, if I can buy, say, folders on sale at Kroger for 10¢/ea. but need to use my shopper card to get the price, I cannot get reimbursed bc I get "fuel points." I can't even let the employee use the store card. I have to get the district Kroger account card ... like they will let me carry that around all the time. So I would just buy them with my own money too save the money and the headache. However, if I bought them at $1/ea. through the school supply company, I can get reimbursed. Stupid! It's not the district's fault; it's actually the government.

    Another example of asinine waste is schools being forced, due to govt regulations, to make children take a certain number of food items from breakfast and lunch, even when they say they don't want them and end up throwing them away. They won't even take them home. And the meals themselves are nothing but carb and sugar fests, so low in protein, it's a abomination. We literally offer a sleeve of powdered donuts for breakfast every week and apparently it meets federal guidelines!

    Lastly, is that according to state guidelines, we must get a new curriculum series for each subject every six or so years ... Use the money or lose it. But it cannot be used for other things we may find more useful. No, we can't decide to use it to bus students home from after school tutoring, to pay for after school or on-line teacher tutors, to subsidize enrichment programs for kids who can't afford them, etc.

    Teachers are just fed up and worn down and sick and tired of being told that they don't "teach for the money"; they do it for the kids. Uhhhggg!! Guilt trip! And the pension and healthcare benefits are not what they used to be and getting worse.

    What about our own children? They deserve parents who earn what they are worth, don't have to struggle financially compared to others who went into other professions, can send their children to a more expensive college if they get into it, etc.

    I could go on, but I'll stop my rant for now. Thanks for reading.

  3. Tenured teachers in Title 1 schools could be compensated through federal income tax credits or granted a 'tax free' status. All contingent upon remaining in their district. This would help attract and retain more highly qualified teachers where they are needed most. This plan would not cost local taxpayers anything; lost revenue gets skimmed from the bloated defense budget.

  4. I like this idea, but you're giving school districts (Supers/Boards/what-have-you) far too much credit. It would quickly devolve into micro-management just as petty and simpleminded as the present: paper grading quotas, nothing but multiple choice tests (even for English), curtailment of clubs and parent-teacher conferences, and offloading of simpler clerical tasks onto admin assistants who will never get proper training. It's a great idea, though.