Portland’s teacher pay problem


Though The Maine Heritage Policy Center has been supportive of alternative teacher compensation models, what the Portland school system came up with is not what we had in mind.

As the Portland Press Herald revealed in a surprisingly good piece of investigative reporting this weekend, Portland’s new teacher pay model has led to dramatic increases in teacher pay – better than 50% in some instances.

What do Portland teachers have to do to earn such massive increases in pay?  Evidently, not much.  At one time, teachers had to attain an advanced degree to move up the salary scale, now they get a pay increase for simply taking college courses. Others have received pay increases for taking workshops and doing other professional development work. One teacher apparently got a raise for  writing college recommendation letters for students.  Another got a pay bump for taking students on field trips overseas.

What is clear from the Herald’s report is that far too much money was offered under the new plan for doing far too little. For some reason, the system’s administrators seem shocked that so many teachers jumped through the necessary hoops to win pay raises, which busted the district’s budget.

The heart of the problem is not simply the poor design of this pay plan and a misguided administrative leadership that mistakenly agreed to it. The problem is the underlaying philosophy of the plan, which is that “teacher learning leads to student learning.”  As the Herald reported, there is little evidence that this is indeed the case.  In fact, there is little evidence that advanced degrees for teachers mean better student outcomes, much less the questionable activities some of the Portland teachers got a raise for doing.

A far better model would have been one that allowed pay increases for professional development that led directly to measurable increases in student outcomes.  That is more in line with what we proposed months ago in our MaineView paper on teacher pay.

One hopes that the Herald’s reporting will result in a more thorough review of the teacher pay plan in Portland, though that is doubtful given the questionable leadership of the system’s school board.  At the very least, the Portland pay mess should serve as a warning to other districts interested in a new approach to teacher pay that whatever they come up with needs to be very carefully designed and clearly tied to improvements in student outcomes.