Idaho is one of five states in the nation that bases teacher pay on both experience and performance.
While it’s true that teachers can only get scheduled raises if they earn good marks on their evaluation, the vast majority do. So the de facto reality is that teacher pay is based on experience and education; performance doesn’t make much of an impact.
Legislators and policymakers have been trying to change that with a number of initiatives geared at rewarding Idaho’s best teachers. But those efforts have turned out to be overly complicated, feeble, and/or short-lived. And the Idaho Education Association says the practice of tying pay to performance can be problematic.
In the midst of these start-and-stop efforts, teachers are experiencing the whiplash of adjusting to a new initiative, watching it become discontinued, then scrambling to figure out how to qualify for the next. And not all teachers have the same opportunities to earn bonuses.
Jeff Lake has lived it.
A social studies teacher at Coeur d’Alene High School, Lake has earned the master educator premium and an advanced professional endorsement – recognitions tied to teacher evaluations, each coming with a boost in pay.
Both programs were designed to foster teacher reflection and improvement, and to reward and retain Idaho’s best. And Lake said he does appreciate the professional growth that each sparked.
But he gets frustrated.
“We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops for a fair wage,” he said. “But those hoops are there and if I have to keep jumping through them, that’s what I’ll do.”
Lake said he spent about 100 hours over the course of a year putting together the portfolio required to apply for the master educator premium, a program that awarded $12,000, paid out over three years. The process was cumbersome, but once he compiled the first portfolio, it would be easier to create them going forward.
But the program, beset by delays and criticism, “sunsetted” at the end of fiscal year 2021, after just two cohorts of Idaho teachers received the bonuses.
Lake was disappointed, but saw another chance to earn a merit bonus via the advanced professional endorsement, which he learned about through his own research and reading.
Under the program, the state divvies out extra funds to districts for teachers who prove their mastery. But districts have the option to pour those funds into salaries for all teachers rather than just to the teachers who earned them.
That means that in some districts, teachers can earn up to $11,000 via yearly bonuses, while in others, there’s no such opportunity.
In Coeur d’Alene, the union negotiated for half of the state APE funds (about $5,000 per teacher) to go to individuals, and half (about another $5,000) to go to the overall salary budget.
Lake saw that as a victory, but hasn’t yet seen the money and still has a lot of unanswered questions. He said there’s been a lack of communication in general about teacher bonus programs.
While Lake sees observations and evaluations as a chance to reflect and improve, he’s frustrated by the obstacles put between teachers and decent pay.
“At the end of the day, I just wish we’d see educators for their value and work to keep them here rather than creating these hoops they have to go through to survive financially.”
Districts disagree on whether advanced professional teachers should get a bonus
Boise is one district that chooses to pour individual bonuses into the career ladder, benefitting all teachers.
Jason Hutchinson, the district’s human resources director, said the district’s compensation package is already attractive enough for recruitment and retention efforts. Plus, Hutchinson said, teachers aren’t competitively trying to earn as much as they can.
“They got into it for the love of teaching,” he said. “If you gave teachers a choice … they’d rather just have the higher salary for everybody.”
But the Coeur d’Alene district takes another approach. When teachers earn the advanced professional endorsement, the extra funds go directly to that teacher, and amounts to a $5,000 bonus each year.
Coeur d’Alene High School Assistant Principal Annora Jewell said
it “honors the hard work of those individual people.” Plus, it wouldn’t be fair for those not working as hard to be making the same pay gains.
The Lakeland School District also directs advanced professional monies to the teachers who earn the advanced endorsement. Those teachers get a bonus of about $11,000 per year.
“In our district, teachers work hard at being distinguished,” Lakeland Superintendent Lisa Arnold said. “In working with our teachers’ association, we just really felt like if we are going to ask this much (of teachers), they should be the ones who get that money.”
More than half of Lakeland’s teachers are in the top third of the salary schedule and are close to retirement. The bonuses are a “great incentive to bolster their pay to help with retirement,” Arnold said. Plus, it ensures that veteran teachers fight complacency and continue improving.
But Blackfoot Superintendent Brian Kress fears that offering bonuses would discourage teachers from helping their peers, as they would be focused on outperforming them rather than elevating them.
“Teachers are more powerful working collaboratively than in isolation,” Kress said.
Christina Linder is torn on whether teachers should get bonuses.
Linder is the director of the College of Southern Idaho’s nontraditional education preparation program and has worked with the State Board of Education on evaluations for years. She is also a founding member of The Danielson Group, a nonprofit organization that oversees the Danielson Framework for Teaching (which is used to assess teachers in Idaho and many other states).
“If you have a teacher that has proven additional expertise and they’re doing really good … there should be a place on the scale for some higher pay,” she said. “(But) … teachers don’t make a lot of money in Idaho, so why not just push someone up on the scale (as they gain experience and education)?”
Linder is a former teacher and said she left the classroom because she was frustrated that she was working so hard for her students, while some other teachers were doing the bare minimum and making the same pay gains.
Excellence should be acknowledged, she said. Just like students earn grades, teachers should earn their place on a salary scale.
When discussions about teacher pay come up, Taylor Raney, the director of teacher education at the University of Idaho, has a favorite thought-provoking question: What if we started paying teachers $100,000 a year?
“If we started paying better, we would see people attracted to the profession who didn’t realize it was a profession that society valued,” he said. “Sadly, how much we pay someone often impacts their own view of themselves in the world and other people’s view of themselves in the world.”
Raney acknowledged that a majority of the state’s budget already goes to education, but said that if people believe teachers should be paid more, they’ll find a way to do it.
For now, districts are left to decide how or whether to reward performance with the funds they do receive – or to just boost all teachers since pay is already low. Evaluations are positioned as a tool for improvement and (sometimes) a path to pay raises. Some question whether evaluations can or should do both.
Annual audits aim to keep evaluations on the right track
The IEA says evaluations are an important and necessary part of the field, but it’s problematic to base pay on them.
Spokesperson Mike Journee said one of the biggest challenges is making sure teachers are given regular feedback and have opportunities to improve so they’re not surprised by a poor evaluation at the end of the year.
Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that observations are just a snapshot of a teacher’s performance.
“It’s a moment in time throughout the year, not a holistic view of what the teacher is doing,” said Matt Compton, the IEA’s executive director.
Another major concern for the IEA is making sure teachers are evaluated fairly and consistently statewide, and that evaluators are adequately trained in assessing teaching based on the Danielson framework.
That’s where the State Board’s annual audit comes in.
Each year, a panel conducts an investigation of select evaluators throughout the state to ensure they’re complying with requirements. The panel met Sept. 19 to 21 to review the evaluations from the previous academic year, and its findings will be made public around December.
Lakeland’s Arnold serves on that panel. Arnold said the teacher evaluation system has improved over the years and become more robust and meaningful.
The evaluations process, when implemented correctly, gets principals in classrooms and keeps them “connected to the teaching and learning happening in the schools.” It ensures that students are engaged and their lessons are meaningful and relevant. And it ensures teachers are self-reflecting and taking time to “be introspective and look at their craft and where they’re strong and could grow.”
“Our districts in Idaho are doing a really good job of not having it be a hoop and making it meaningful,” she said. “Collaboration and conversation is where the power is.”