Teacher Pay & Tenure System Like Pounding Square Peg into Round Hole

Have you ever tried to pound a square peg into a round hole (or vice versa)? How about after that doesn’t work a couple times, you go out and buy 100 of the same square pegs to keep trying what already failed?

It makes about as much sense as most systems we have today for training, developing, paying, and retaining teachers. Sure, we’ve seen some progress with performance pay programs — Colorado has produced some leading examples — but the old-fashioned salary schedule still persists. Pay teachers based on seniority and academic credentials.

Never mind, as the Denver Post‘s Jeremy Meyer observes from Urban Institute education director Jane Hannaway (with supporting evidence compiled here), that teachers overwhelmingly improve during the first four years of their career and then just stop:

“It’s one of our very consistent findings,” said Hannaway, presenter last week at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in San Diego, citing at least two recent studies of teacher effectiveness.

“The reason of course is not clear, but it’s in study after study,” she said. “Teachers do get better (in the beginning). If you look at the same teacher at Year One, they look a lot better at Year Four but then it flattens out. It’s a puzzle. The real question is why. How can we organize the profession and the work differently?”

Hannaway brought up the topic in a discussion with a small group of journalists during the meeting, saying the results raise deeper questions over the value of tenure and paying teachers incrementally more for every year of service.

At the Schools for Tomorrow blog Alexander Ooms raises questions, saying the latest round of findings muddies the picture somewhat. But the point remains that when it comes to the bottom line of growth in student achievement, teacher performance appears to plateau after four years.

While more study may be needed, research makes the case stronger and stronger that Colorado needs to re-examine its tenure (known by any other name, still as harmful) laws, and work to do even more to incentivize and enhance performance-based pay programs.

What else, you say? Increase flexibility in finding new ways to let qualified people into the profession, reform pensions that stack the deck against non-career-track instructors, and induce competition among providers of professional development and mentorship services to promote ongoing improvement.

Listen to Sandi Jacobs from the National Council on Teacher Quality for more details and more good ideas.

My friends in the Education Policy Center and I keep harping on these issues over and over. However, repetition is the key to learning, and policy makers have yet to show they really get it and are ready to take action to help solve the teaching quality problem that has such an impact on students not only like me but also those who face many more challenges and obstacles in their lives.