High Expectations and Low Pay, a Teacher Compensation Model Whose Time is Done

Five years ago, The Equity Project (TEP) charter school in New York City made national headlines with promises to pay teachers an annual salary of $125,000. A new Mathematica report suggests the experiment worked.

TEP aims to address student achievement through a laser focus on teacher quality driven by a combination of high salaries and a bonus structure, a rigorous hiring process including live teaching auditions, regular embedded professional development, and high levels of accountability. The first four years of results are in. In 2013, TEP students, over 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, demonstrated 1.6 additional years of math learning and 0.4 additional years of English learning compared with matched peers.  What’s more, by foregoing administrative positions and making other trade-offs, TEP is implementing this model at the same level of public funding available to every New York charter school.

TEP demonstrates–albeit at a small scale–that it’s possible for teachers to be highly compensated without increasing costs in a real public school finance system, and that it’s possible for a public school to provide the kind of organizational structure necessary to manage highly-compensated professionals effectively.


TEP’s success is compelling because if we agree that teachers are the most important in-school factor driving student achievement, then getting the best people in classrooms has to be a high priority. And salary has to be part of that strategy. If we truly want the best and brightest to enter our classrooms and to stay there, then the teaching profession has to be an attractive choice for people with lots of options. As a nation, we must stop relying on good feelings about public service as an antidote to paying low salaries for professional work requiring significant investment in education and training. A big piece of attracting smart people to difficult jobs with high expectations is the promise of economic gain.

I don’t mean to suggest that paying teachers very highly is the answer to all of public education’s woes. It’s not. And the news from TEP isn’t all positive. TEP turned over nearly half of its teacher workforce in the first year. But the fact of the matter is that by several measures, TEP’s students are thriving. And the turnover rate has gone down over the four years of the study, showing that organizationally TEP has figured something out about hiring, evaluation, and personnel support.

Significant barriers exist to sweeping changes in teacher compensation policy in public schools. To make this type of model work, building-level administrators need much higher levels of budget and staffing autonomy. Decentralizing these processes would be sea change compared to most current public school administrative structures. However, as TEP’s model demonstrates, fitting a much higher level of compensation into the same or similar levels of overall school funding requires trade-offs like larger class sizes, fewer supports, and more administrative responsibilities for teachers. Determining what trade-offs will work for staff and students has to be a building-level decision, which means relinquishing central control over hiring, dismissal, staffing patterns, and salary determinations.

More broadly, getting from where we are today to a large-scale model in which as many smart, talented people are clamoring to become teachers as investment bankers (or lawyers or any other highly compensated profession requiring at least a college education) would represent a tremendous cultural shift.

TEP is one small example and one model. More proof points will be required to begin movement toward large scale shifts in the theory of teacher compensation. Currently, charter schools, which operate on a decentralized model, offer the best opportunity to create these proof points. Yet charters comprise only about 6 percent of public schools.

But teacher pay is too big of an economic incentive to continue largely ignoring as too expensive or too difficult. And if TEP shows us that a highly paid, highly accountable cadre of teachers can produce consistent, high levels of achievement for traditionally underserved students in a public school setting at typical funding levels, surely that’s potential worth exploring.