The Future of Teacher Compensation

Déjà Vu or Something New?

Joan Baratz-Snowden discusses lessons learned from performance pay programs and outlines key strategies for designing future programs.

Read the full report (pdf)

Pay-for-performance proposals are not new. There is a long, failed history regarding attempts to change the current teacher compensation system. The single salary schedule has had remarkable staying power—it is easy to understand and administer; it is predictable; and teachers believe it is fair and objective. But it has its limitations: it has not produced competitive salaries in the current job market, it does not respond to market forces, and the evidence linking teacher education and experience to improved student performance is weak.

The current push for pay for performance is driven by a number of factors: a paradigm shift in education policy development from process to outcomes; public opinion polls that suggest that the best teachers, however defined, should be rewarded with additional compensation; research that indicates the current compensation system does not necessarily reward the teachers who get the greatest student achievement gains from students; a shortage of teachers in certain teaching fields and in certain geographical areas; an inequitable distribution of the best qualified teachers to the schools that educate large proportions of poor students and/or students of color; and the apparent success of the Denver school system in implementing a radically different pay plan, which was created with the full cooperation and involvement of the local union, the Denver Colorado Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Pay-for-performance proposals are designed primarily to improve student academic outcomes. They also often address other policy problems including the distribution of high quality teachers in hard-to-staff schools and the recruitment and retention of teachers in shortage fields such as science, math, special education, and second language acquisition. Incentives are rewarded for individual teacher and/or school-wide improvement in student achievement and willingness to take on hard assignments, to teach in shortage areas, to assume additional roles and responsibilities, and/or to acquire additional knowledge and skills.
How reformers frame pay-for-performance proposals is as critical to their success, if not more so, than the particular features of the plans. Approaches that are punitive in nature, or developed primarily as a management tool without regard to developing greater capacity of the system to help teachers succeed with students, are unlikely to achieve their goals and will likely be met with considerable resistance from teachers. Recent debacles in Florida and Houston are examples of such approaches to teacher compensation change. To be successful, the compensation reform must be seen as a lever in a larger systemic reorganization designed to support student learning. The Denver experience is an example of doing teacher compensation reform the right way.

Evidence is sparse regarding the effectiveness of pay-for-performance reforms to increase student achievement. Nonetheless, efforts to change compensation over the past decade or so—both the successes and the failures—provide considerable information about what it takes to make pay-for-performance systems work in schools:

  • Reforms cannot be designed as punitive management tools, and they cannot be a sorting process. They must be inclusive and part of a systemic effort to build the capacity of the district to help teachers help students.
  • The purpose of the alternative system must be clear, whether it is to improve student achievement, improve recruitment and/or retention, attract teachers to shortage teaching fields, attract teachers to hard-to-staff schools, or some combination of goals.
  • Teacher buy-in is a must. The new system cannot be imposed on teachers; it must be developed with them. Teachers need to be involved in all aspects of the design, implementation, and evaluation of a new system, and that system eventually should be part of the collective bargaining agreement or memorialized in memoranda of understanding.
  • Redesigning the teacher compensation system is not an event. It is a work in progress that must be adjusted and refined as experience with the system grows.

It takes time to do it right. Haste has been the undoing of many efforts to change the compensation system. Redesigning the compensation system cannot be mandated from on high. It requires time to develop the teacher-management trust necessary for a successful system, design and evaluate the components of the program, communicate the program to get broad teacher and community buy-in, and build the missing pieces for the system. These missing pieces include better tests and other evidence of student learning, capacity to analyze student learning data, new and improved teacher evaluation systems, professional development for principals and other administrators, computer systems that can link student and teacher data, computer systems that can link those data with pay-roll and other human resource systems, and professional development programs tied to district instructional needs.

Additional money is also essential. Money must be available to design, implement, and sustain the program. New systems cannot be created merely by slicing and dicing existing dollars; they cannot be done on the cheap. Yes, schools and districts need to spend existing money better, but it will also take additional resources to develop a professional compensation system designed to improve instructional practice and increase student achievement. Failure to anticipate the additional costs and provide the necessary money has been the Achilles heel of many past professional compensation reform efforts.

Ultimately, any new system must meet the “APPLE criteria” first developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for its assessment system. That is, the new system must be: administratively feasible, professionally acceptable, publicly credible, legally defensible, and economically affordable.

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