Read the full report | The current effort to consolidate Maine’s many small school districts is the latest in a series of recent efforts to improve the state’s schools. During the past decade, Maine has enacted tougher learning standards, developed new assessment systems to test student achievement, reformed the state’s school funding formula, distributed laptop computers to thousands of middle and high school students, and dramatically increased state funding for K-12 education. Despite these efforts, student performance, as the State Board of Education reported in a recent study, has remained “flat through recent years.”
What may have been missing from these attempts at reform was a focus on teacher quality. Studies suggest that effective teachers can have a profound impact on student outcomes. Maine, like many states, has struggled to attract and retain top teachers. The consolidation of school districts, however, presents the state with a unique opportunity to investigate how the adoption of new models of teacher compensation could improve the effectiveness of the state’s teachers and correspondingly improve student achievement.
Indeed, across the nation, states and school districts are looking to abandon a system for paying teachers which was adopted nearly a century ago, and are embracing in its place a compensation system focused on student outcomes, encouraging teacher leadership, and rewarding excellence in the complex and demanding job of teaching.
Is it time for Maine to embrace a revolutionary new way to pay its teachers?
• Virtually every teacher in Maine is compensated according to what is known as a “single salary schedule.” Under this system, teachers with similar educational backgrounds and years in the classroom are paid the same. Because such systems are considered equitable and easy to administer, they remain in near universal use across Maine and the nation.
• Single salary schedule systems have come under increasing criticism in recent years. A number of studies have found that the factors which determine teacher pay under the salary schedule system, such as longevity and level of education, have little or no impact on teacher effectiveness or student outcomes. Studies have concluded that these salary systems “work against” teacher quality because they do not encourage the attainment of teaching skills more directly related to student outcomes, do not encourage professional growth and leadership, and do not attract top students into the teaching profession.
• The recent development of more advanced assessment instruments makes it possible to more carefully measure student achievement, and therefore more accurately and fairly judge the effectiveness of individual teachers. This has led a number of states and school districts to adopt “performance-based” compensation systems, which more directly connect teacher pay to student outcomes and other indicators of teacher effectiveness.
• Though relatively new, such alternative compensation systems have already been shown in a number of studies to improve student outcomes. Such systems have also been used successfully to encourage teachers to take on professional leadership roles and more demanding teaching assignments.
• Maine’s need for more highly effective teachers, combined with the focus on teacher pay that is accompanying the current school district consolidation effort, suggest that this may be an opportune time for reform-minded teachers, union leaders, and school boards to carefully investigate the adoption of alternative teacher compensation systems.