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'Compensate Debate' Could Follow New Teacher Evaluations

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ARLINGTON, Mass. — Amid the debate about changing the way to evaluate teachers, there is little mention of the bottom line. That is, should good teachers be paid more than those considered not as good? Or would higher paid teachers make a difference in education?

We asked those questions to Arlington High School science teacher Jack Duranceau. After 14 years in Arlington, he's leaving to teach in the town of Harvard this fall. Even though that adds more than 50 miles a day to his commute, there are two main reasons Duranceau is leaving: the first is a recent schedule change in Arlington that gives him less time with his students than he used to have; the second is a big bump in pay because of the short supply of veteran science teachers.

"It's not entirely fair to Arlington to say what the amount is — it's substantial," Duranceau said. "I wouldn't have left Arlington if it wasn't something over $10,000."

It's not just this one pay raise. Duranceau also looked ahead after a tentative contract was negotiated in Arlington this month, which essentially gives minimal pay increases to teachers in the future.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Click for a district-by-district comparison of average teacher salaries for K-12 schools in Massachusetts.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Click for a district-by-district comparison of average teacher salaries in the state.

"The problem with the salaries (in Arlington, especially) is that we're looking — with the financial straits of the town — we're looking at never having cost-of-living raises," Duranceau said. "So I'm looking at my salary in real terms decaying for 14 years until I retire."

Duranceau isn't the only veteran teacher leaving Arlington. Science teacher David Blakely is retiring in January — earlier than he expected — again in part because of flat salaries. He also says it’s not just about money for Arlington teachers, but about feeling as if their experience is valued.

With Blakely and Duranceau gone next year, half of the Arlington High Science Department will consist of new teachers. Blakely says Arlington teacher salaries are on the low end because teachers gave up bigger pay raises for more generous health insurance benefits in the past. But now the health benefits are not so generous and the entire system is affected by starting teacher salaries that are lower than comparable communities.

"Arlington used to be what I call a 'destination school,' meaning it was one of those schools that once you got in, this is as good as it's ever going to get," Blakely said. "'Destination schools' now I would expect would be Weston, Concord, Belmont. So if you look at a salary scale and see if you're starting in Arlington at [$39,000] and ending up in the low 70s, but if you start in Belmont at 45 and end up in the low 90s, it's a no-brainer as to where you're going to apply first."

In Massachusetts there is a wide range of teacher salaries. According to 2009 data from the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is between $29,000 and $46,000 a year, with Boston being the highest. For a teacher with a master’s degree, salaries range between $53,000 and $88,000 a year and the highest are in Concord-Carlisle. Teachers are given raises based on how long they're on the job and their level of education. Typically a teacher reaches the maximum salary in 12 years.

Some say this is a fair system; others say pay should be based on whether a teacher is effective. While the proposed new teacher evaluation regulations attempt to define teacher effectiveness, they do not specifically say how a good teacher might be paid differently from how teachers are paid now. MTA President Paul Toner says assessing teachers needs to come first.

While the new evaluation regulations attempt to define teacher effectiveness, they do not specifically say how a good teacher might be paid differently from how teachers are paid now.

"Right now we're focused on the evaluation system," Toner said. "Once we have a good new evaluation system in place that people have faith in, then we can actually talk about alternative forms of salary and compensation."

The state's proposed teacher evaluation regulations do suggest rewarding excellence in teaching, but leave it up to local districts to decide how to do that. The most specific the regulations get is to say that teachers identified as highly effective may be able to take on additional responsibilities for which they could be paid more. So what do many teachers, like Duranceau, think about the state's evaluation proposal?

"Sometimes it's so foolish I don't even know what to say," Duranceau said laughing.

And a teacher like Duranceau likely would be considered highly effective under the new teacher evaluation proposals: his classrooms are orderly, he's involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, his students' test scores are high. Even though he agrees that the current evaluation system is flawed and even though he is leaving in part for a better salary, the problem — as he sees it — is that teachers often are not motivated by money so it's not a way to measure or reward teaching.

"It doesn't work for us," Duranceau said. "If you pay me an extra $500 to teach better I don't spend anymore time than I do now. It's not an incentive. I'm not in sales.

"I can get really good test scores by doing the wrong thing. I could teach SAT subject test chemistry, we could do no labs and I could pretty much guarantee that everybody would get over 700 and everybody would love it. The reality is that's not science at all. That's not what I think of as our mission — it's opening minds about how to think certain ways and how to problem-solve and learning enough material so that when they go to the next level they're competent."

So while "the evaluate debate" intensifies ahead of next month's vote on these new teacher evaluation regulations, expect "the compensate debate" to soon follow.

This program aired on May 27, 2011.

Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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