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Why the numbers in teacher pay negotiations can be misleading

Seemingly overshadowed by election coverage, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts are still in the throes of contract negotiations. While changes in leadership may usher in new district-wide policies or initiatives, how things shake out with both local teachers unions in the coming months may actually matter the most.

That’s because, arguably, few things are as critical as the ability of both Twin Cities districts to ensure that students graduate college- and career-ready — a task made more difficult in recent years because of growing budgetary deficits. For next year, the Minneapolis district is facing an estimated $33 million deficit and the St. Paul district is facing a $23.3 million deficit. Under these financial constraints, district leaders are pressed to strike a balance between financial stewardship and teacher support.

When looking at teacher contract negotiations, teacher pay increases (along with associated benefit and legacy costs) have the greatest impact on district finances. Yet, for those removed from the bargaining table, it can be hard to make sense of the numbers.

For instance, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers released an initial proposal for a 2.5 percent increase to the teacher pay schedule for this school year and another 2.5 percent increase for the following year.

But a percentage increase to the schedule doesn’t offer a direct translation to how teachers’ pay is actually impacted. In reality, an individual teacher is likely to receive a pay bump regardless of what happens at the negotiating table. Here’s a look at how, exactly, the teacher pay schedule works.

Steps and lanes

In line with traditional teacher pay systems, both Twin Cities districts use a teacher pay chart that’s made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The lanes, which run horizontally along the top of the pay chart, are defined by incremental levels of educational attainment, starting with a bachelor’s degree and moving up through a master’s degree plus 60 credits in Minneapolis and a Ph.D.or a doctorate in education in St. Paul.

The steps, which run vertically down the left-hand side of the chart, denote the number of years a teacher has worked in the district. Teachers receive a routine pay bump simply by working their way down the steps.

In Minneapolis, according to the most recent salary schedule, teachers are guaranteed an annual pay bump through their first 10 years, after which point it only comes every three years.

In St. Paul, this pay bump continues on an annual basis through year 15, then stagnates through year 19. The steps max out at 20 years, which equates to another pay bump. After that, teachers who stay with the district for 24 consecutive years are eligible to receive an annual longevity stipend of $500 (with anything less than a master’s degree) or $1,200 (for those with a master’s degree and beyond).

Any negotiated increases to the pay schedule — essentially the agreed-upon cost-of-living adjustment — bump up the entire pay grid by some percent increase. Depending on how an individual teacher moves through the pay grid, however, they could end up seeing a much higher bump in their pay than the newly negotiated amount. For instance, according to the current pay schedule, a St. Paul teacher entering their eleventh year of teaching in the district, while also achieving 15 credits on top of their bachelor’s degree, would see a 7.6 percent pay increase in their salary over last year, moving from $52,752 to $56,759.

‘Peculiar to education’

The way traditional teacher pay models are structured — guaranteed pay bumps for accruing more years with an employer and for attending additional classes to accrue more credits — runs counter to the performance-based pay systems used in many other professions.

Jim Vollmer, assistant director of employee and labor relations for the St. Paul district, describes the concept of steps and lanes as “very peculiar to education.”

This pay structure often results in the district paying many of its most experienced, highly qualified teachers more to work in wealthier, whiter schools. There’s little to no monetary incentive to keep these teachers in the schools where they’re needed most, but are instead being served by some of the least experienced teachers. In contrast, in the health care field, for instance, nurses and doctors are often paid more to work in so-called health care deserts.

He says other districts have started to rethink the traditional teacher pay scale. In some cases, that means front-loading the teacher pay schedule to attract new talent, and then offering smaller raises as teachers gain years of experience and additional credentials. In other cases, this means more strategically aligning more significant pay bumps with years that teachers are more likely to leave the profession, to incentivise them to get past common burnout points.

The Q-Comp program

But Vollmer says he’s not so sure his district will have much luck exploring pay schedule reforms without being able to tap into the state’s Q-Comp program, an optional program that provides additional funding to districts or public charter schools to support them in designing alternative teacher compensation and professional development systems. One of the requirements for eligibility is to include some sort of performance pay — even if it’s only a dollar, as is the case in the Minneapolis district.

“Just the philosophy and concept of some sort of performance pay, the federation has been very adamant that's not a concept they’re even willing to consider,” he said.

He added that the district would likely be willing to look at different forms of compensation, or even a new structure to the entire salary schedule.

Nick Faber
Nick Faber

“Do you pay more at the beginning, pay less at the top end? Is that a better situation? Those are all questions that could be asked,” he said. “But I don’t know that those are necessarily questions that the federation — at this point in time — is really open to having discussions about.”

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, says the union has discussed teacher pay scale adjustments in past negotiations and will remain open to looking at whatever come up on the negotiating table this year. But, ultimately, he says, “our traditional steps and lanes really honors the craft of teaching … the committed and talented professionals that stick around.”

He adds that it’s not just about recognizing teachers’ longevity, but it’s also about recognizing the fact that many invest their own money and free time into becoming more knowledgeable teachers by working toward more advanced degrees.

Asked about Q-Comp, Faber called the district’s appeal “a distraction,” pointing out that to sign on to the program now would place the district behind more than 20 other districts that are currently waiting in the queue for funding that hasn’t yet been allocated by the state Legislature.

Rather, in keeping with the union’s recent call for local tax-exempt businesses and nonprofits to financially support district schools, Faber says the union would like to create a situation where the district could increase entry-level salaries without shaving down pay bumps for more senior teachers.

“That’s part of the reason we’re wanting to look at increasing the amount of funds coming into our schools, so we can actually have these conversations — that it shouldn't have to be an either-or but both-and.”

Districts exploring new pay methods

Nicola Alexander, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, says that, more and more, districts are exploring ways to move away from the traditional step and lane pay schedule to place a higher priority on rewarding teachers for pursuing professional development opportunities that may not necessarily align with credits toward a more advanced degree.

Nicola Alexander
Nicola Alexander

She’s also taken a close look at value-added models that link teacher pay to student performance. Based on recent work she’s conducted with a grad student, however, she’s found that including student achievement as part of teacher evaluations did not “result in the gains we had expected,” noting the impact was mediocre when it came to reading scores and low when it came to math.  

When it comes to deciding whether to invest more in raising entry-level salaries or maintaining a more traditional pay schedule that places a greater premium on years of experience, Alexander offers a caveat:

“What research has shown is that the working conditions matter even more than the salaries, up to a certain point,” she said. “Once you have met the basic needs, it’s the working conditions that teachers face and the supports that they feel they get from their principal or the building leaders that ultimately decides how long they stay.”

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Comments (5)

Phoenix, rising

This is a very dead horse that’s been beaten so many times it ought to be unrecognizable, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Phoenix-like, it rises from the ashes more or less annually. Basing teacher pay on the performance of students (typically measured via standardized test scores) is ludicrous on its face, and careful consideration doesn’t make it any more reasonable or prudent. That’s because it’s not the teacher who’s taking the test, and who would logically have an incentive to perform well. Students take those tests, and to my knowledge, students in Minnesota (or any other state) who take state, district, or even local school-approved standardized tests that purportedly measure their “performance” have no genuine incentive to perform well on those tests, nor is there any meaningful negative consequence if they perform poorly.

Thus, the whole argument is based on rewarding, or punishing, teachers for the test-taking ability of children over whom they exercise only modest control while in the classroom, and no control at all outside that classroom. Outside that classroom is where their students spend the vast majority of their time, regardless of whether we’re talking about kids in kindergarten or seniors in high school. Without falling back too much on time-honored cliché, I’ll just say that education, as understood and practiced in most societies on the planet, is an ** opportunity**. No ethical means has yet been found to **force** a child to learn arithmetic, or grammar, or biology, or the history of Minnesota, including the Indian and minority experience. Learning any or all of those things requires effort and a certain amount of intellectual focus on the part of the **student.** When student test scores include equally weighty and valid scores for student effort, with related benefits and negative consequences, then they might provide a reasonable basis for measuring student achievement, but even then, the relationship between student achievement and teacher effectiveness will be difficult to quantify.

Education, various editorials from business leaders and politicians notwithstanding, is not, nor has it ever been, nor is it likely to ever be, a “business” that allows for the quantification of its inputs. Yes, we can measure the output: can Johnny spell “dog;” but we don’t yet have, and may never have, a reliable way to determine if Johnny’s spelling ability is due to his kindergarten teacher’s efforts, or those of his sister Emily in after-dinner conversation, or to Johnny’s efforts themselves, or what the ratio of those inputs might be when combined.

Meanwhile, over my 30-year career, I was never paid as much as a trash collector for the district in which I lived and taught, though it seems fair to point out the substantial difference in requirements and expectations for the job(s) in question. I can’t speak for Minnesota, where I never taught, but in the state where I spent my career, changing jobs/school districts usually meant a pay cut, unlike many business situations where changing employers typically means better pay. My income as a teacher never reached the median level of the community in which I lived, and while there were several of those 30 years in which I received no pay raise at all (it’s tough to justify tax increases to pay higher teacher salaries when the economy is in the dumpster), the largest raise I ever received in 30 years was about 2%, or in practical terms, $100 a month. In most years, it was less than that. $25 a week certainly helped, but it hardly qualified as “life-changing.”

Basing pay on performance is "ludicrous"

The fact of life in our world is that people generally get paid based on how well they perform their jobs and how productive they are.

What is ludicrous is giving someone a pay increase just because they got another degree, without any evidence that this additional educational achievement in any way helps them perform their jobs. By the same token, paying extra just because someone sticks around, regardless of how good a teacher they are also makes little sense, particularly if it discourages a bad teacher from looking for another career option.

Granted, measuring teacher performance may be difficult to do in the real world, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to figure out how to do this. As a taxpayer, I absolutely refuse to provide ANY further funding to our school district until the teachers union changes their attitude about this and is willing to cooperate with parents and the school administration to figure out a way to weed out bad teachers and incentivize good teachers to work in challenging environments.

Facts of life

The "fact of life" in the world as I've experienced it is that people very often get paid because they were born into the right family, got a lucky break, have learned to tell the right jokes at staff meetings, made a fortuitous career choice, and/or in numerous other ways made themselves appear to be more competent than they are. Having worked for corporations big and small over the years, as well as public schools, and having attended both public and private schools myself, There are completely clueless executives who, due to one or more of the above factors, contribute to their company's success a small fraction of what has been added by the guy on the assembly floor or the clerk in accounting, not to mention women everywhere, in every field. More importantly, making more money doesn't make you a more successful human being except in the exceedingly narrow ethical universe of a bank account.

Of course there are incompetent teachers, just as there are incompetent business people. I'm aware of several companies that provide financial incentives for their employees to obtain further training, up to and including college degrees, including an MBA, and without any demonstrated improvement in their performance or productivity. Such improvement is apparently believed to be implicit in the attainment of the high education. If that sort of effort is worth rewarding in business, why would it not be worth rewarding in education?

Every field of endeavor I'm familiar with rewards experience. No successful business hires someone at $xx per hour, or a salary of $xx, and tells the new hire "…and you'll be making exactly the same amount in 20 years, having long ago proven your ability to do your job and do it well." I note in passing that nowhere, in this very long argument that's been going on for decades, have critics been able to point to a teacher population that is unqualified. There's been no suggestion by responsible sources that Minnesota teachers are illiterate, linguistically or mathematically or scientifically. It's not—**not**—teachers who are doing poorly on standardized tests. It's students.

Just as you are responsible for your own success or failure at whatever you've chosen as an occupation, so, too, is a student responsible for her/his academic success, or the lack thereof. We can nail this down as soon as we figure out a way to quantify the internal intellectual and biochemical process that goes on in every human's brain. Until then, standardized tests are an exceedingly poor way to measure academic success and intellectual growth in children.

One area where we likely agree is seniority. In my school district, seniority was always an important factor when layoffs became necessary, but it was not the only factor. Here in Minnesota, it appears to carry far more weight in that context—more weight than it should, I think—but it should also not be abandoned as an evaluation criteria. Experience counts.

Teacher pay

I always find it interesting when teacher pay and how teachers are paid is discussed.

As a retired teacher and union leader I was involved in numerous contract negotiations. As a union leader we always were interested in researching and discussing different ways to compensate teachers. Many years ago we actually created a task force with the school district to research alternative methods to compensate teachers in a manner that would increase beginning salaries and provide professional salaries for career teachers. The result of this endeavor lead to the district terminating the process because of the potential cost increase and the uncertainty of costs going forward. One benefit of the current step and lane system is the fact it assists in providing budget certainty for school districts. It provides a predictable cost process for budgeting.

In my opinion it is difficult, if not impossible to tie teacher pay to student performance. There isn’t a method to measure the performance of a student from the result of test. For example, how is the impact of a first grade teacher measured on a test taken in third, fifth, or eighth grade? What is the impact of physical education teacher on a science, math, or reading test? What is the impact of special education teachers who work with the emotionally and physically disabled students on those tests?

Teachers are In the profession because they truly want to help and improve student learning and student lives. Compensation is important because they live in our economic times and need to support families and themselves.

The truth is, that in every school district in the state, there are a vast majority of dedicated teachers who are working without recognition or support to provide opportunities for their students with limited resources.

Calculating teacher pay

I have worked as a city employee or as a union rep and attorney for Minnesota public and private employees since 1986. And the steps and lanes type of pay chart used for most Minnesota teachers is the same kind of pay systems used for all kinds of employees in both the public and private sector. This article tries to suggest otherwise but it is only wishful thinking. Over the years I have watched some MN cities and counties attempt "merit pay" or "pay for performance" systems only to abandon them a few years later as dismal failures due to either the favoritism that is inherent and inevitable in most supervisor-employee relationships, or due to strict budget restraints which prohibit anyone, even the best performers, from getting any pay increase. There is nothing wrong with the present system of establishing pay for teachers. It is the same as the pay system for snow plow drivers, police officers, courthouse clerks, nurses, linemen, custodians, engineers or secretaries. And to base teacher pay on the test scores of students makes about as much sense as basing police officer pay on the lack of crime in their community in any given year.