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Sen. Michael Bennet Headshot

Bring Teachers' Pay Into This Century

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Our ability to compete for the jobs of tomorrow depends, above all, on our capacity to educate children today. Yet we are still operating under yesterday's system to attract and retain new, talented teachers. It is outdated and designed to fail.

Study after study affirms what I saw in the classroom every day as superintendent of Denver Public Schools: Nothing makes a bigger difference for student learning than great teaching. To get enough of the teachers we need, teaching has to be a great job where talented people are supported and rewarded.

That won't happen without reforming a compensation system that was designed deep in the last century for a labor market that no longer exists. It's based on a society that discriminated against women, and left them with limited professional options.

When talented women had to choose between becoming teachers or nurses, we could convince them to teach "Julius Caesar'' for 30 years with a small salary that built toward a generous pension in retirement. Fortunately, women today can choose from an array of lucrative professions. But our system of teacher compensation has yet to evolve to reflect this choice.

We pay new teachers extremely low starting salaries. They are eligible for only small increases as they advance through their careers. But instead of competitive salaries, we offer a pension system that is back-loaded. It invests potential early-career earnings into late-career rewards, causing teachers' total compensation to swell at the end of their careers. The effective cost to the system can be $150,000 or more a year.

This setup provides perverse incentives: Teachers who are ready to move on might stick it out in the classroom until they qualify for full retirement benefits. Meanwhile, new teachers aren't enticed. Nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years, well prior to achieving full benefits.

We urgently need a new system -- one that provides competitive salaries from the start, and opportunity for growth, attracting talented people entering the workforce to the profession.

Top-performing teachers who take on the toughest challenges should have the opportunity to make six-figure incomes early in their careers. We should differentiate their salaries based on the difficulty of their assignments and their ability to drive results in the classroom.

And when those teachers are ready to leave the classroom, they'll have the same flexibility so many of their peers have in today's workforce.

Every teacher who has entered under the current system is owed what they were promised. Honoring the commitments that have been made while financing a new system will take some creativity. But we have to do it to be successful.

Across the nation, districts have begun recognizing this reality and are beginning to redesign their pay structures.

When I served as superintendent, we worked collaboratively with the union to institute a groundbreaking compensation system, ProComp. It increased starting compensation by 20 percent. It also rewards teachers based on their performance, for taking on tough assignments, and for teaching in hard-to-staff subjects.

A recent study showed that since the system was implemented, first-year teachers exhibited higher achievement, and schools with large percentages of teachers participating in the new system have higher rates of retention.

Teacher compensation isn't the only factor in cultivating great teaching. Other important priorities include changing how we measure student performance, providing more flexibility to teacher-preparation programs, and improving how we train and support principals.

Yet with a million teachers set to retire nationwide in the next few years, an inadequate system to recruit and retain new teachers, and schools that are struggling to meet high expectations, we can no longer afford to continue a 20th-century system in a 21st-century world. It is time we reform our compensation structure to allow us to recruit from a strong pool of talent and to prevent us from losing our most successful newcomers to other jobs.

Originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

Michael Bennet, a Democratic senator from Colorado, is the former superintendent of schools in Denver.