Though recent legislation goes a long way to improve Texas’ system for teacher pay, the manner in which teachers are compensated in Texas is fundamentally flawed. Teacher pay in the Texas system is not based on merit. It is instead based on the teacher's level of education, years of experience, and varying Independent School District (ISD) policies. Texas’ teachers and students would be better served by a merit-based system that attracts quality people and incentivizes teachers to achieve more.
Here’s how it works now: The Texas Education Agency sets a minimum salary schedule that outlines the minimum amount an ISD is allowed to pay a teacher. That amount is based on years of service. The ISDs then adopt their own payment schedules at or above the minimum schedule. For example, a teacher in her third year of teaching for Abilene Independent School District would make $45,900, and that amount increases with experience. That same teacher, in her sixth year of teaching, would make $46,800. However, under this model, an excellent teacher who goes above and beyond for his students will make the same amount of money as his counterpart who does not. A system that works this way can be discouraging for teachers who are striving for excellence.
An additional piece of this puzzle we must consider is that Texas has a teacher turnover problem. According to the Texas Education Agency, roughly a third of all Texas teachers leave their jobs as public school teachers before reaching their sixth year, and almost half of the teachers who move from out of state to teach in Texas will leave their jobs as public school teachers within the same time frame. Now, compensation alone is not the only reason a person decides to leave a job, and the same holds true for teachers. However, pay does play a large role in that decision process. Failing to incentivize teachers to remain in the profession is a missed opportunity.
In the 2017-18 school year, Texas had 362,192 teachers educating Texas students. We know that those 362,192 teachers can’t all perform at exactly the same level of proficiency and excellence. The best way for us to attract the highest quality, most skilled, and best-suited people to serve as public school teachers is to support and encourage school districts to implement merit-based systems that allow the best teachers to earn higher wages. This incentivizes the most-skilled folks to become, and remain, teachers.
Merit-based pay can be a controversial topic, and there are objections to the idea. One of the most common objections to a merit-based system is that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of a “good teacher.” It is difficult to rate the quality of a teacher because every teacher will face his own unique challenges in the classroom, with his students, and with the subject he teaches. Additionally, the average day in an El Paso ISD teacher’s classroom may look very different from that of a Texarkana ISD classroom. While this concern is real, it is also a great opportunity for innovation across the state at the district level. Allowing the districts themselves to determine the metrics for teacher excellence or to pull from existing initially successful models, such as the Teacher Excellence Initiative used by Dallas ISD, allows decision makers at the local level to put their heads together to help define what a “good teacher” really looks like.
Merit-based pay has the potential to radically improve education in Texas. It gives teachers the opportunity to increase their compensation to the point where they can quit second jobs, an unfortunate trend for teachers trying to make ends meet. Merit-based pay will help identify and weed out lower performers, while attracting and retaining the superstars. Merit-based pay is better for teachers, better for students, and better for Texas.