Making a difference with performance pay

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Dallas ISD’s Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) has received many accolades in Texas public policy forums for raising teacher pay amongst the district’s most effective teachers. A new report highlights its strengths (and areas for improvement).


Dallas ISD is one of four districts highlighted in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report, Making a Difference:  Six Places Where Teacher Evaluation Systems are Getting Results. The report also includes two states with uniform evaluation systems, all of which have used comprehensive evaluations to address persistent issues with teacher quality.

You’ve probably heard it before, but I’ll say it again: teachers are the most important in-school determinant of student success. As such, any system of schools that wants to fundamentally increase its students’ chance of success must develop its teaching force.

Dallas ISD’s TEI has all the hallmarks of a well-constructed teacher evaluation and compensation system:

  • Multiple measures
  • Student surveys
  • Objective measures of student growth
  • At least three rating categories
  • Annual evaluations and observations for all teachers
  • Professional development tied to evaluation
  • Written feedback after each observation

Teacher pay and recruitment

Recruiting the best and brightest teachers into the classroom is a difficult goal that will require a fundamental rethinking of the teaching profession. One of the simplest changes policymakers can make is raising the earning potential of teachers.

Though teachers’ starting salaries in Texas seem high relative to other states, earning potential does not significantly improve over time. Even worse, teachers have little to no control over whether or not they receive a raise. Many must wait until they have been in the classroom for decades to earn a salary competitive with other professions.

The top third of college students say this factor is the number one reason they don’t consider the teaching profession. Instead of antiquated salary schedules that don’t take job performance into account, our country’s best and brightest want to be paid more based on their effectiveness.

This is one of the reasons teachers are flocking to Dallas ISD. In as few as six years, the district’s most effective teachers can earn a six-figure salary.

Teacher pay and retention

Recruitment is only one piece of the teacher quality puzzle. Once a district has an existing pool of educators, it must figure out ways to keep their best and exit ineffective teachers. Differentiating pay has proven to be an effective lever for change in Dallas ISD.

As NCTQ’s report finds, nearly all of Dallas’ most effective teachers stay in the classroom. Conversely, approximately half of its least effective teachers exited the profession, while the other half elected to stay in the district to receive extra help. Over time, TEI will solidify a culture of excellence among its teaching corps and continue to reward teachers for their impact instead of their tenure.

Lessons from Dallas

Where Dallas ISD’s TEI shines

  • All teachers are formally observed several times a year, but the district also requires short “spot observations,” which can save principals time and give them more real-time opportunities to engage with teachers and learn about their strengths and areas for growth.
  • To provide more salary stability and protect teachers from an anomalous bad year, Dallas averages a teacher’s current and previous year’s ratings to determine salary. Also, teachers’ salaries only drop if they have earned a lower effectiveness level for three consecutive years.
  • The district sets a target distribution for the percentage of teachers earning each rating. This policy forestalls the upward creep in ratings that may not be correlated with achievement and allows the district to budget responsibly.

How it could be improved

  • The system involves two different rating systems: one to measure performance in the most recent school year and a more cumulative system that incorporates annual ratings and other data to determine pay. These two systems have similar names, which has caused confusion.
  • In a 2017 survey, roughly a quarter of teachers felt the evaluation system was unfair to teachers facing greater challenges in low-performing schools.

For more of NCTQ’s insights, read the full profile for Dallas ISD’s TEI system.

The Texas context

Texas is a big state with unique communities. We should take what works in Dallas and other innovative school systems and apply it to local districts. To make performance pay work statewide, state legislators should:

  1. Develop a set of guidelines districts can use to create alternative compensation models to replace traditional salary schedules;
  2. Acknowledge the importance of student achievement in determining a teacher’s effectiveness;
  3. Ensure performance pay systems are aligned with high-quality, multi-measure evaluations and professional development opportunities; and
  4. Provide incentive funding for districts to develop and implement strategic compensation initiatives.

How Texas pays its teachers is one of the most important conversations we have in public policy. As next session approaches, legislators and advocates alike should be able to get around proven strategies to accurately assess teacher effectiveness and reward our most impactful teachers.

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