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‘What Price is Right?’ Game Opens Educators’ Eyes to the Complexities of Teacher Compensation

A district could offer a high starting salary, which might attract the best teachers but limit the potential for raises down the road.

A district could hand out big bonuses to a small number of teachers for improving student achievement but then may switch course and reward teachers for taking on additional leadership roles and responsibilities instead.

Every decision comes with tradeoffs. Now a new game helps districts foresee them. “What Price is Right?”, an exercise designed by Watertown, Mass.–based Education Resource Strategies, is intended to get educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders to think more broadly about teacher compensation, especially as many districts are redesigning their teacher evaluation systems.

And the Cost Is…?

For the game, which is presented as part of a workshop on compensation, teams of participants are first presented with an array of enticing options without knowing exactly how much money each costs. In round two, when the costs are revealed, many rethink their choices.

“It really is a good introduction to people who are embarking on compensation reform or for those who just want to get smarter,” says Karen Baroody, ERS partner and managing director.

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the game and the workshop were first introduced to the foundation’s intensive partnership sites about a year and a half ago. Since then, it has been presented in a couple of different formats—first as an educational tool for groups like the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials and Teach Plus policy fellows in Boston, and second for districts in places such as Georgia and Tennessee that are in the midst of making over their compensation systems.

Regardless of the audience, the reaction tends to be the same, says David Bloom, principal associate at ERS. Participants say, “We didn’t understand how complicated these decisions were until we played the game.”

While ERS has led the workshop, it is really designed to be a do-it-yourself activity and is available for purchase from ERS, complete with a facilitator’s guide and workbooks for the participants.

Taking ‘First Steps’ Toward Compensation Reform

For those who don’t have the opportunity to attend the workshop—or who need some quick solutions to their teacher compensation dilemmas—ERS has also published “First Steps: What School Systems Can Do Right Now to Improve Teacher Compensation and Career Path.”

The document highlights several actions that leaders can implement within a year that can improve student outcomes and require little or no new funding. These changes begin the work “toward a new vision of a teacher compensation and career path system that can attract, retain and leverage the skills of a highly effective teaching force.”

One of the recommendations is to consider rewarding teacher leaders with stipends for taking on coaching responsibilities instead of hiring expensive full-time instructional coaches. The authors—ERS’s Stephen Frank, Baroody, and Jeff Gordon—also urge districts to take a tougher stance on teacher absenteeism and tardiness when considering which teachers should be “managed out” of the profession.

The document tries to steer districts away from trendy or longstanding practices that haven’t been found to be effective. For instance, when districts give one-time bonuses to teachers whose students pass high-stakes tests, the authors write, they are “rewarding a small group of teachers for doing the same job they are already doing.” The authors also discourage automatic salary increases for teachers who take additional coursework, since there is little proof that leads to greater effectiveness in the classroom.

ERS’ guidance on the topic of compensation is also presented in “Rethinking the Value Proposition to Improve Teacher Effectiveness,” a white paper.

Whether leaders review the publications or engage in the eye-opening game, it’s clear that compensation, just like teacher evaluation, is entering a new era. As one Teach Plus workshop participant said: “I am [now] thinking more critically, especially about how compensation can be used to elevate the profession.”

View the online version of the story here.

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