What Price is Right for Compensation Reform?

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in July, a group of men and women sat down to play a game of “What Price Is Right?” Instead of guessing the price of a blender to win a trip to Bermuda, these individuals made nail-biting decisions that could lead to a greater destination: a comprehensive teacher compensation system that attracts, retains, and leverages highly effective teachers. Sure, it lacks the white sand beaches and turquoise waters, but this destination is a much needed and, we believe, attainable, utopia. 

At the 2013 Leadership Academy hosted by the Massachusetts Association of Business Officials (MASBO), Education Resource Strategies’ (ERS) Randi Feinberg and Ashley Woo led a group through our newly-released “Teacher Compensation Workshop.” The workshop starts with key concepts of compensation reform, then moves into a “game” called “What Price is Right?”—ERS’ latest interactive exercise, developed in partnership with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The game walks participants through a series of decisions based on key components of a teacher compensation system:

  1. Base salary: Starting salary through maximum salary

  2. District Incentives: To compensate teachers in hard-to-staff subjects or incentivize high-performing teachers to go to low-performing schools

  3. Roles: To create career paths for effective teachers through leadership opportunities

  4. Rewards: Financial compensation and non-financial recognition for improved student performance and other achievements

For each component, participants must choose from a set of options, each with its own price tag, implications, and potential for gains in student achievement. Additionally, each option speaks to a different strategy and theory of action.  At the end of the game, participants calculate the final cost of their desired compensation system. If the cost is above budget, they think through trade-offs to make their strategy achievable.   

We had hoped this tool would be a vehicle for teacher compensation reform. And thanks to the enthusiasm of MASBO participants, we firmly believe in the game’s power to provoke conversation, help decision-makers think outside the box, and, as a result, break down barriers that sometimes inhibit change. One superintendent told us she’d like to play “What Price is Right?” with her union and feels the exercise would be valuable during contract negotiations. Additionally, we found that the game broke down preconceived notions about “set” teacher compensation models. One business administrator reflected:

“When you started I thought this was going to be all about merit pay…but I see now that’s just a small piece. This is a far more balanced approach.”

An effective teacher compensation system is one that attracts, retains, and leverages highly effective teachers. It is also a value proposition that tells prospective and current teachers what the district believes in and what it can offer, both monetarily and in terms of professional development. As a result, it fosters a system of highly effective teachers that, in turn, drives student achievement. While not a silver bullet or a tropical beach, teacher compensation reform is a smart path to a particular type of paradise. And “What Price is Right?” could be a first step in the journey.