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Teacher Attitudes about Compensation Reform

Implications for Reform Implementation

Dan Goldhaber, Michael DeArmond, Scott DeBurgomaster
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Document date: June 01, 2010
Released online: August 10, 2010


Reform advocates and policymakers concerned about the quality and distribution of teachers among schools support proposals of alternative compensation for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and subject-areas. But the successful implementation of such proposals depends on teacher attitudes. Results from a 2006 survey of teachers in Washington State linked to school and district data confirm that teacher opinion about pay reform is not uniform, and illustrate teacher preferences for different pay structures vary substantially by individual and workplace characteristics. Policymakers interested in implementing new pay systems should carefully assess teacher opinion in determining where (and how) they invest in them.

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Today there is a growing chorus of education advocates, analysts, and policymakers for reforming teacher compensation (Center for Teaching Quality 2007; Committee for Economic Development 2004; Prince 2002; The Business Roundtable 2000; Hassell 2002; Ballou and Podgursky 1997; Kelley and Odden 1995). By contrast, public school teachers—and especially teachers unions—are often characterized as opponents of such reforms (Moe 2003; Paige 2007). Some opinion polls appear to bolster this view of teachers. For example, the well-regarded public opinion research organization Public Agenda surveyed 1,345 public school teachers in the spring of 2003 about their views on unions, merit pay, and other hotbutton topics. The survey included a question about whether school districts should pay teachers for things (unspecified) besides experience and graduate credits. Half of the teachers said changing the compensation system would "open up a can of worms" (Farkas et al. 2003). In Public Agenda's focus groups, teachers expressed a "visceral resistance" to the idea of linking pay to student test scores (Farkas et al. 2003, 25).

On closer examination, however, teacher attitudes about compensation reform are not so simple. When Public Agenda asked whether teachers "who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools" should receive extra pay, 70 percent of the teachers surveyed said yes, and 67 percent thought that teachers "who consistently work harder, putting in more time and effort than other teachers" also deserved extra pay. Twenty years earlier, in the 1980s, a poll by the National School Board Association found that 63 percent of teachers supported merit pay (Rist 1983). But a nearly contemporaneous poll, conducted by the Gallup Organization and Phi Delta Kappa in 1984, found just the opposite: 64 percent of teachers opposed merit pay (Elam 1989). Elsewhere, an analysis of late-1980's data on teacher attitudes from the U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) found that "teachers of disadvantaged and low-achieving students are, if anything, more supportive of merit pay than the average teacher" (Ballou and Podgursky 1993, 60). More recently, Phi Delta Kappa's 2000 teacher poll found that a slim majority of teachers favor "tying pay to performance," but very few (3 percent) are willing to use student test scores as a factor in determining salaries (Langdon and Vesper 2000). A recent poll by the Teaching Commission (2005) found that two-thirds of the general public, and one-third of teachers, favor raising pay if the increases were tied to performance.

This presents a confusing picture about what teachers think of compensation reform—depending on the poll, they are either for or against it. Part of the problem, of course, is that it makes little sense to talk about reform in the abstract. When it comes to specific proposals—combat pay for difficult working conditions versus merit pay, for instance—teachers in some polls appear to draw distinctions. Public Agenda's teachers favor the former and oppose the later. Similarly, it makes little sense to refer to teachers in the abstract. Teacher opinions may vary by both individual and workplace characteristics. The interests of a young teacher working in a low-performing, high-poverty school may be different than those of a veteran teacher working in a high-performing, low-poverty school; a high school biology teacher's interests may be different than those of an elementary school teacher. And yet, except for Ballou and Podgursky's analysis of the SASS (1993), prior studies generally do not account for how individual and workplace contexts might influence teacher attitudes.1 If individual and workplace characteristics differentially and systematically inform how teachers feel about compensation reform, attempts to gauge teacher opinion in general can tell policymakers only so much. If, however, policymakers have a sense of how teacher opinion varies by context, they may be able to move away from asking sweeping questions about which reforms are "implementable and will work" and toward more useful questions about which reforms are implementable and will work under what conditions (Honig 2006).

At the same time, the importance of teacher attitudes, contextualized or not, depends on the assumption that teachers' career decisions are, in fact, responsive to financial incentives. This may seem self-evident, but most people are also familiar with the popular counter-argument that "teachers aren't in it for the money." If that is the case, teacher opinions about compensation may be largely beside the point. Interestingly, although studies suggest that teachers do in fact respond to differences in wages (Baugh and Stone 1982; Dolton and van der Klaaw 1999; Murnane et al. 1991; Stinebrickner 2001), the effects are fairly small (Hanushek et al. 2005; Imazeki 2007). Some studies find no statistically significant wage effects on teacher mobility and instead suggest that teacher choices are influenced by working conditions and school culture (Ingersoll 2001; Smith and Ingersoll 2004).2 And so, in the background of conflicting opinion polls about compensation reform is the broader question of whether or not the entire discussion is simply barking up the wrong tree.

In this paper, we present the results from our analysis of data from a recent survey of Washington State teachers merged with administrative data on individual and workplace characteristics. We consider how teachers view compensation reform, and whether they prefer improvements in compensation or improvements in working conditions. On balance we find that teachers prefer pay reforms that reward criteria over which they have more control, such as work location or subject area. Teachers are far less supportive of pay reforms that link rewards to performance, but they also express interesting differences of opinion. Veteran and female teachers are less supportive of pay reform in general, whereas secondary teachers are more supportive of certain reforms, including merit pay and subject-area bonuses. Interestingly, support for merit pay is higher among teachers who have positive impressions about their principals and negative impressions of their fellow teachers, and lower among teachers who hold their fellow teachers—but not their principals—in high regard. In sum, these findings suggest that pay reforms—especially wage differentials for working conditions or subject-area skills— may be more likely to be implemented successfully if they include opt-in provisions for veteran teachers and, in the case of merit pay and subject matter differentials, if they focus on secondary teachers. The findings also suggest that policymakers may want to consider experimenting with the most popular reform first: extra pay for difficult working conditions, or so-called combat pay.3

The paper is laid out as follows: the next section presents background on compensation reform and why teacher attitudes matter; then, we describe our data and methods; next, we present our results; and finally, we conclude with policy implications and thoughts about further research.

(End of excerpt. The full paper is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Education

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