The Power of Differential Pay

A New Strategy to Recruit Quality Teachers

Congress has the opportunity this fall to improve teacher quality by supporting differential pay programs, argues Robin Chait.

Congress will begin consideration of the No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization when it reconvenes in September, giving it the perfect opportunity to tackle the issue that researchers, policymakers, and the general public all agree is the most critical factor in improving students’ learning: teacher quality.

Current federal policy has little impact on teacher compensation. Title II funds can be used to support projects that use differential pay to recruit and retain teachers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, however, in the 2002-03 school year 83 percent of Title II district funding was used to reduce class size and provide professional development, while no other single activity accounted for more than 3 percent of funds.[i] A few smaller programs support scholarships or loan forgiveness for teachers in high-needs schools and subject shortage areas.

The federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which passed in a 2006 appropriations bill and provides $99 million in competitive grants to states, school districts, and nonprofit organizations that support performance-based compensation programs in high-needs schools, is a significant step toward spurring new teacher compensation policies, for example.

Yet more needs to be done. Federal policies should implement and support a variety of differential pay programs as a first step. Evaluating the success of these programs will provide valuable information about what policies are most effective at recruiting and retaining high quality teachers, particularly for high needs schools.

A number of legislative proposals already incorporate differential pay programs. One key piece of legislation, the Teach Act, is based on recommendations that the Center for American Progress outlined in a chapter of its Progressive Priorities idea book in 2005. [ii] The Teach Act, introduced in the House by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on May 17 and in the Senate by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) on March 14 would redress the weakness of federal policies and improve the quality of the teaching work force, particularly for high-poverty schools.[iii]

The Teach Act includes strategies to improve teacher preparation, recruit talented teachers, and provide teachers with incentives to stay in the profession and teach in high-poverty schools. The legislation would provide scholarships and bonuses to recruit high-quality teachers in teacher shortage areas and for teachers to commit to teaching in high-poverty schools. The legislation was developed based on a chapter of the Progressive Priorities idea book on improving teacher quality produced by the Center for American Progress in 2005.

The Teach Act is likely to be incorporated into NCLB reauthorization. Incentive pay programs have also been incorporated into several legislative proposals for reauthorization of NCLB that have been introduced.

This proposal and others have wide bipartisan support, but there are still many that fervently oppose differential pay for teachers, arguing that all teachers should be paid the same regardless of their ability and assignments and that paying all teachers based on experience and education is fair.

These differential pay critics ignore the reality of the teacher labor market and the very real needs of our schools. Teachers in high-poverty schools face more difficult working conditions and often lower pay than other teachers, while math and science teachers forgo more lucrative positions in other fields when they choose to teach. Outstanding teacher candidates currently have much better opportunities with better pay and more professional growth in other fields.

Critics of differential pay also ignore the serious disparities between teachers’ qualifications in high and low-poverty schools. About 20 percent of teachers in the highest-poverty schools and schools with the highest concentrations of minority students are inexperienced—almost double the 11 percent in other schools.[iv] This is in part because high-poverty schools have very high rates of teacher turnover and therefore have higher proportions of new teachers. High-poverty public schools lose 22 percent of their faculty each year compared to 12.8 percent for low-poverty schools.[v] Students in high-poverty high schools are also more likely to be taught by teachers without a major or minor in their subject areas. Nationally, 34 percent of classes in high-poverty high schools are assigned an out-of-field teacher compared with 19 percent in low-poverty schools.[vi] “Classes in high-poverty schools are 77 percent more likely to be assigned to an out-of-field teacher than classes in low-poverty schools.[vii]

We can continue to pretend that our current policies are working, or we can look at the data and acknowledge that we need to take more drastic action to improve the quality and equity of our teaching work force. It’s time for federal policy to make a critical investment in improving teacher quality, particularly for students in high-poverty schools.

For more on this topic, please see:

[i] "Improving Teacher Quality In U.S. School Districts:Districts’ Use of Title II Part A Funds in 2002-03, Policy and Program Brief," available at

[ii] Center for American Progress, "Progressive Priorities, An Action Agenda For America" (2005).

[iii] See Senate Bill S. 873 and House Bill H.R. 2390.

[iv] National Center for Education Statistics, "Monitoring Quality: An Indicators Report" (December 2000).

[v] Richard M. Ingersoll, "Why Do High-Poverty Schools Have Difficulty Staffing Their Classrooms with Qualified Teachers?" (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2007) at 9.

[vi] Craig D. Jerald and Richard M. Ingersoll, "All Talk, No Action: Putting an End to Out-Of-Field Teaching" (Washington: The Education Trust, 2002) at 4.

[vii] Ibid., at 4



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