Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Restructure Michigan Public Education; Scrap the Step System of Pay

One of the most frustrating practices I’ve seen in education is the pay system.

I wrote about it in this opinion piece:

Detroit News: Increase teacher pay in manageable way (07/10/08)

I’m told that you-know-what will freeze over before schools move away from the step system. Perhaps so, but the practice is damaging to the profession, and changing it would be worth the fight.

With this system, teachers earn the same, regardless of whether they work hard or not. They earn the same, regardless of whether they’re effective or not. They earn the same, regardless of what subject they teach.

For the first part of a teacher’s career – while they’re still gaining experience and perfecting their craft – their pay increases substantially.

Then, once they’ve got some significant experience in the classroom, and are presumably hitting their stride, the pay spigot closes. A teacher is likely to be limited (on average) to inflationary pay increases for the rest of their career.

It probably served a useful purpose decades ago, but it’s now obsolete and belongs in an education museum.

I’ve pasted a copy of the article below (along with the salary chart created by the Detroit News) in case the link doesn’t work.


Increase teacher pay in manageable way
Scrap unsustainable salary hikes for better reward system

Teachers' pay has followed a single salary schedule -- or "step system" -- in which years of teaching experience and college credits alone determine pay raises. Yet shifting expectations, limited funding and increased accountability in education are challenging the viability of this outdated pay system in Michigan.

Under the current system, teaching professionals -- many of whom deserve higher compensation -- are held hostage in a bizarre pay structure that ignores their skills or effectiveness. It artificially rockets up salary early in their career, only to see it stall once they're seasoned.

The step system isn't good for schools either. It can cause district payrolls to grow faster than annual funding increases, leaving districts little choice but to lay off teachers, increase class size or make other instructional cuts.

While the history of teacher salaries might explain why this pay system was established decades ago, it's time to scrap the steps now.

Each year, teachers take one step up the pay scale until reaching the top, typically in 10 years.

The only opportunity for salary increases comes from post-graduate college work. Teachers move to new pay scales -- and new steps -- by earning more college credits or degrees. Most obtain a master's degree within their first 10 years of teaching.

In Rochester, the starting pay for a teacher is $37,697. Top-of-scale is reached after 10 years, and this year it's $83,470 for those with a master's degree.

During the past 10 years, the average contract increase in Rochester has been a meager 2.5 percent (inflation during that period averaged 2.6 percent). However, that average contract increase doesn't actually reflect the pay increases for all teachers or the payroll increase for the district.

A newly minted teacher hired in 1997 was paid $29,771. His or her 2007-08 salary (with a master's degree) would be $83,470. Over 10 years, the average compounded salary increase was an impressive 10.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the seasoned and experienced teacher -- a 10-year veteran already making the top-of-scale $65,918 in 1997 -- would be earning the same $83,470 (plus a few other stipends). The average salary increase for this teacher was just 2.5 percent -- not quite on par with inflation.

This one-size-fits-all system is fundamentally unfair. It's also unsustainable as a business model. Maintaining this system is irresponsible.

A revamped system should be based on measurable metrics such as student achievement and mentoring, as well as principal and peer review.

Subject matter and teaching environment also deserve consideration, all in an effort to reward teachers who are truly making a difference in areas where they're most needed.

A fiscally responsible system would distribute available money in the form of pay increases -- even bonuses -- based on meaningful elements, rather than the number of years of service alone.

Florida's schools are trying a new plan, as well as schools in Houston and Denver. As with all new concepts, the startups have been challenging and subject to criticism -- primarily from teacher unions. But the concept is sound, and Michigan needs similar forward thinking.

Local boards in Michigan are ill-suited to the task and are no match for powerful teacher unions that are resistant to change.

Ideally, the Michigan Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union -- would be part of the solution. It could help to secure voluntary implementation at the local level. If the MEA refuses to participate in a new compensation system, then perhaps the state should unilaterally intervene.

Changing the compensation system in Michigan's public education is necessary, not only for financial reasons, but also to reward those teachers that make a difference.


Anonymous said...

Hey, maybe we can ground up the malcontents and the undesirables for pet food or something.

Soylent Green is made of teachers!

Bill Milligan said...


Keep posting, I'll make the popcorn.

I'm going to call you out on the line "many of whom deserve...". I don't think you believe that. No way would you be for a system that would potentially skyrocket costs. No way do you believe the current system holds back the pay of "many good teachers." Yours is a belief on CUTTING pay, not increasing it.

That said, you're advocating (in your final paragraphs) a system where control is taken away from local districts and made accountable to some big, fat, centralized government program.

Mike: are you secretly a closet democrat? : blushes:

But, yeah, hey, let's create a system where students are channeled even more than they are right now (which is nauseatingly a lot) into standardized testing. I suppose it makes you and everyone like you feel warm and fuzzy when those standardized test scores come out in their neat little rows printed on nice computer paper.

Okay, let me talk your language and the language of those like you who get the pep talks at the right wing retreats: in any business environment, it's about supply and demand, correct? The auto industry is a great example (as the Right always ties in the plight of the auto industry to teachers). Those jobs can be outsourced, moved out of state, liquidated--so the worker bee better mind his/her ps and qs and simply take what administration gives them.

Okay, fine.

Last I checked there's a massive teacher shortage coming down the pike. Last I checked, those jobs can't be outsourced to India or Mexico. Last I checked, educating our children was the #1 (or close to it) priority.

Given that, what should teachers with bachelors and masters degrees make again? The market has spoken. I know you don't like it--hence your answer that the government needs to "intervene" (lol).

It's hilarious how it works with the Right: free market! free from government restraints! Oops, what's that? the workers have the leverage?! Help us government, help us!

It really does make me laugh out loud, Mike.

I've posted elsewhere that I and many people I know aren't necessarily against a merit system of some sort. The devil is in the details, as they say. The system you dream about in your deep sleep at night? No (lol). Taking such an extreme position negates you and makes you harmless, so keep at it.

If your system were implemented wholesale we'd have even more of a teacher shortage than we do now. Who would go into teaching and be at the mercy and whim of the political persuasion of a single person (your principal) for a raise?

But Darwinism would still win the day: your system goes into place, teachers leave teaching creating an even more acute need to bribe them to stay, salaries and compensation increase even more.

Okay, go for it, Mike!

I'll make the popcorn.

Bill Milligan said...

...in other words, you hating on the MEA is going to get you nowhere, except maybe drive up your blood pressure and give you ulcers. Life's too short for that, Mike.

The MEA is here to stay, and it's your job as a board member to work with them constructively.

You don't have to like it, of course, but you simply have to do it. And people are free to have their websites and blog about this and that and big, bad MEA, blah, blah, blah. But none of that changes a thing, nor will it: the MEA is, and will always be, a participant in the process.


Mike Reno said...


I thought you'd understand the part where I said, "Ideally, the Michigan Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union -- would be part of the solution. It could help to secure voluntary implementation at the local level." I cannot explain it in any more simple terms than that.

And the rest of your note is largely an argument you are having with yourself. You attribute thoughts and words to me -- things I've never said and things I don't believe -- and then you try to argue those thoughts.

It doesn't seem worthwhile to even attempt to correct your mischaracterizations because it's clear to me that you often don't read what I write.

I'll let your comments stay -- even though you unfairly extrapolate from, or grossly twist my words. I hope you will feel satisfied that you had your say.

But going forward I would like you to limit your comments so that they are about things I've actually said, and not about things you believe I think.

If you have a problem with this, please email me.

Bill Milligan said...


If you're true to your word and believe what you've written, such a system will end up costing much more than what we have going now. That's my thesis. I haven't met a conservative yet who thinks we need to spend more money--only those who think there needs to be a culling of the herd via competition.

Look: at the core of all this dancing around--whether it be about MESSA or the MEA or merit pay or whatever--is control. Namely, who has it and who doesn't. And to couch the direct attack on the control issue, we often see flatout lies, exaggerations with numbers, and fearmongering used as Trojan Horses (not saying with you specifically, but in general)--and even then those are made by false-front groups. More deception. Thing is, not everyone is stupid and swallows such nonsense whole.

But I digress...

So let's say your district goes with your plan wholesale. Let's pretend for a minute that Mike Reno gets completely everything he wants, no concessions, all of it.

Okey Dokey: teachers pay is now tied directly to standardized test scores, evaluations, the type of cologne one wears (whatever) and thumbs up, thumbs down on raises is granted by the principal.


School A has (say) 30 teachers. Principal Smith reviews the test scores, evaluations of all teachers, who made the best drinks at the Christmas Party, who wears the best cologne--whatever the rubric is. You decide.

Out of the 30 teachers, 6 are deemed to be "extraordinary" and doing the job the written or unwritten rubric and standardized test scores heretofore decreed as the "scientific" basis for obtaining raises, getting bonuses, whatever you want to call it.

This news is proudly distributed to the community. Perhaps said teachers might even get medals from the board or something, pictures in the local paper.

Then on the Monday following the award ceremony, all parents of all children at the school call Principal Smith and demand that their children have 1 of the 6 teachers--or else.

Or, if your thesis is correct, and many of the teachers get merit pay raises (say, what the heck, all of them), the district's payroll skyrockets. Yeah, as if an at-will employee (Principal) is going to go to a board meeting and tell you, Mike, "all of our teachers deserve merit raises this year." Lol...

That person knows he or she better be culling the herd and reporting a lean bottom line to the "stock holders."

So what of the teachers that didn't get raises? Fire them? Send them to summer school? Remedial courses? And how do you determine whose kid gets one of the "chosen" teachers? Board members' kids? Who?

Be insulted all you want. Quite frankly we're even.

Anonymous said...

Steps, no steps, merit no merit, the details are still missing.

Regardless, Mr. Reno is real fast to throw out numbers but will he EVER go on record with what the starting pay should be for teachers?

The standard under grad is a MINIMUM requirement.

We in the buisness world hire at $60k or more straight out of school.

So what is a teacher worth in Mr. Reno's world?

Get Real!!! said...

What state are you working in, pal? Seriously, what company is regularly hiring BA grads at $60K?

Perhaps some specialized engineering, or medical job. But your standard college grad is not going to make $60K out of school; certainly not in Michigan!

Why would you perpetuate myths like that?

Mike Reno said...


The challenge in trying to implement merit pay is in trying dispel the misconceptions that exist about it, such as those you have described.

I would not expect it to be as arbitrary as you describe.

Student achievement -- yes, as measured by test scores -- would only be one element.

And if you read my article, you'll note that I said "principal AND peer review."

Furthermore, many principals are NOT the imbeciles you seem to think they are.

You do have a point about the parents who would want their children to have the "top" teachers, but that situation already exists. And, quite frankly, what on earth is wrong with that?

==> Mike.

Anonymous said...

My neighbor's kid just took a job with GE in a Chicago suburb for the low 60s. He is a fresh Michigan State grad with an engineering degree and average grades. Nothing special here he was a party boy for 5 years.

There is no myth here. Even the Detroit car companies are starting in the mid 60s.

So again, what is a teacher worth? Pal!

Bill Milligan said...

Mike, I will agree with you there are myths associated with Merit Pay--but we probably disagree on what those myths are ;)

I don't think all administrators are imbeciles, but neither do I buy your claim (repeated more than once) that all are unbiased, benevolent, un-political people who always treat employees fairly in all situations.

Your opinion piece contains some nice sound bites and will no doubt resonate with those who dislike unions or employees having leverage or control in the work place. I think, as an above poster said, since you've raised the issue the burden for you is to provide specific details and answer specific questions:

--What should the base rate be for a teacher with 1) bacheolors degree 2) master's? Or is that part of it irrelevant (as some have suggested)? Regardless, where is the starting point?

I have yet to see any citizen--from parent to presidential candidate--spell out what a teacher should make. No, the only thing we ever hear is that teachers cost too much.

Well, that's a rather convenient stand, isn't it? Look: if you believe payroll is too high and teachers cost too much (both in salary and benefits), then you must have a specific idea of what they should be making--otherwise you would never have been able to formulate your initial claim in the first place.

So let's hear the details of your plan. You've obviously thought about this beyond the sound bites and 500-word opinion column you threw together (I hope).

Mike Reno said...


Just so we're clear, I have never once said that "all" principals are "unbiased, benevolent, or un-political", let alone say it repeatedly.

And keep in mind I'm not negotiating a contract here; I'm trying generate some discussion.

Salaries should be determined by the free market. For example, if math teachers are in short supply, then they should be able to command a higher salary. Successful teachers should be able to command a higher salary than average teachers.

Right now, successful teachers miss out on the extra compensation they deserve because it is instead funneled to the mediocre or poor teachers. I would prefer to get rid of the poor or mediocre teachers, but they are protected by tenure. So if they must stay, I would then prefer to increase their pay at a slower rate, and increase the pay for successful teachers at a faster rate.

Anonymous said...

You evaded the question on the tabel again. The market rate is well kn own in many professions. The Fortune 500 and 100 companies ALL share this. That is how I know my market rate is $91,000 for my grade.

I work for the car industry and may need to move on. I am qualified in the basic discipline required for math and science.

So what am I worth as an AP Physics teacher? Don't hide behind the lame excuse of contracts. You are not afraid to blast out the right-winged rhetoric so put some numbers out there.

I work in a merit system and got all my 2008 raise and most of soemone elses this year.

So, what incentive does this panacia of yours offer me to get me to jump ship and teach?

Anonymous said...

You are worth a lot right now if you ask McCain on the campaign trail. Magically worth less if he were to actually get elected.

It's like the top row at fixed games at the carnival: "see the prize you can win."

Trouble is, nobody ever wins those prizes ;)

But save your breath. You won't get Mike or anyone to dare throw out a number on what teachers should make.

All rhetoric spouted on the subject boils down to two things: 1) how can we re-gain complete control over teachers and make them at-will employees? 2) how can we pay them less and cut benefits (related to #1)?

Mike Reno said...

Unfortunately you seem to be blinded to the possibilities that could come from freeing ourselves of the current bonds that constrict the system.

The current system protects and rewards marginal teachers.

This is not in any way whatsoever about controlling teachers... it's about liberating the good ones. And it's not about paying teachers less... it's about paying the good ones more.

It's an effort to improve a system in need of repair.

Anonymous said...

So put the numbers out here, do the math, and see that your proposal will actually cost the tax payers more than the present system.

It is well known that the present system traps good, rewards poor, and ignores marginal employees.

So does the merit system I work in.

However, if I am politically savvy and on my A game, I can get bigger raises when raises are available.

Be honest and at least do the math in private. You will find that a merit fund of a hypothetical 4% will grow the overall salary faster than any district can afford. In this 4% model some get 8, some get 10, and most get 2 or zero.

But the hypothetical 4% model needs a basis or starting point. You duck and dodge that number.

Therefore no constructive dialog on the overall cost of a purly merit based system will EVER happen here.

Bill said...

Well, deleting posts won't stop people from asking you to answer questions presented here, Mike. You can always do away with the ability for people to comment altogether like Kyle does, if you don't like being asked the tough questions.

Aside from that, the questions are still out there waiting for you to answer them.

Mike Reno said...

You can say all the bad things you want about me, Bill, but I've asked you many times to stop making up things and then attributing them to me.

Bill said...


That's a red herring. I've asked you to please answer the questions presented here. As have others.

It's a fact you haven't answered them. That you attribute that to us speaking badly about you is your right of interpretation, I guess.

Bill said...

Sorry about the double post, but I wasn't done when I hit the button...

anytime I see a board member in any district whining that there's no way to get rid of poor teachers and that tenure ties their hands, blah, blah, blah, I will call that person on the carpet and tell him/her flat out to buck up do the job they were elected to do. It's a complete myth that there aren't methods to weed out poor teachers; it's a complete myth that tenured teachers can't be fired.

Maybe the problem is with the people blindly rubber-stamping things (from administrators doing evaluations to board members voting tenure for a person), and not the system itself.

Aside from that aside, there's still be excellent questions raised here that haven't been answered.

Anonymous said...

We know the numbers involved in the to expensive existing pay model.

Where are the real numbers for the merit model?

Do they exist?

Will you ever share them?

Did they come out more expensive?

What about the benefits?

Long on the party whine but real short on substance? This speaks volumes about the credibility of the Detroit News opinion writer and pokes some holes in the veracity of the claims.

Show us the numbers so that a cost comparison is possible!

Anonymous said...

Market rate of $91k? Sounds like a 7th level at GM?

Anyway, say you decide to leave GM/Ford/whoever and get a teaching degree and try to teach AP Physics. In my district (not Rochester) with the step system in place, you start at $39,954. Are you willing to take a $50k pay cut?

I don't believe you should get paid what an experience teacher gets paid, but certainly more than a 22 yr old fresh out of school.

The upcoming shortage of Math & Science teachers could easily be filled with laid off auto engineers. A free market would recognize your value. The closed step system does not.