The Pinellas school district and the teachers union are ready to talk about differential pay, short-hand for higher wages and more support for teachers who work in high-needs schools. They also will discuss performance pay, which means bonuses for teachers who are demonstrably more effective. These are long overdue steps that reflect the urgency of addressing underperforming schools and giving at-risk students a better chance at a good education.
The case for differential pay is clear. Some of the highest-needs schools in Pinellas also have high teacher turnover and transfer rates. Past practice has been to set pay on years of experience and advanced degrees, then pretending that all classroom situations are equal. Both the district and the union now seem willing to face reality: Attracting the best teachers to underperforming schools will require more pay for them and better conditions for success — more support, more planning time, perhaps smaller classes and additional class time. Students who are behind aren't going to catch up without such extra efforts.
Teachers must be an integral part of the planning for differential pay. They are the ones who can speak directly to the incentives that would entice the best teachers into some of the most challenging classroom situations. And while pay is one major component, it is not the only one. After all, if teachers were in it solely for the money they would choose another career. So pay should be combined with other incentives that ensure success at high-needs schools.
With extra pay must come more accountability. Once teachers are drawn to high-needs schools by differential pay and incentives, there must be reasonable ways to measure their performance, to keep the best and to move out the ones who don't teach well.
There is no time to waste. Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, the only secondary school in the Tampa Bay area to be given an F by the state this year, will likely be the first laboratory for many of these experiments, including differential pay.
Performance pay is a different animal. It rewards teachers for the achievements of their students, whether they start out low- or high-performing. Some may argue that quantifying student success is hard. But Pinellas already has de facto pay-for-performance programs, as do any districts across the state that teach the high-level Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses.
This could serve as a model in underachieving schools as well as regular non-honors classes. For example, the district could design final exams for each course that would be a fair test of the material covered in class. The exams could be graded outside the district, perhaps at the University of South Florida, and the teachers could receive bonuses based on the number of students who successfully pass tests on the agreed-upon material.
As district and union officials continue to meet today to discuss these ideas, Pinellas does not have to reinvent the wheel. Hillsborough has had both differential pay and performance pay for years, and it has learned lessons along the way. When a disproportionate number of teachers at high-achieving schools earned performance bonuses a few years ago, the district adjusted the rules so that teachers at other schools could fairly compete.
Pinellas should work seriously and quickly toward adopting both differential and performance pay. The schools and the students need the right teachers in the right classrooms right now.