As districts wrestle with finding teachers for hard-to-staff subject areas or high-poverty schools, some are turning to “strategic pay” — or compensating teachers differently depending on what or where they teach.
The teacher shortage can vary by district and even within schools, but research is clear that certain subject areas — special education, math and science — are the most difficult to fill. In 2021-22, 49 states reported teacher shortages in special education, 44 states faced math teacher shortages and 42 states struggled to fill science teaching positions, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s analysis of federal teacher shortage data.
Some experts studying teacher shortages argue that as districts allocate their federal COVID-19 relief funding, that money should be used in a more precise way for teacher recruitment and retention. Currently, 23 states have incentive policies for hard-to-staff subject areas, said NCTQ president Heather Peske during a Dec. 15 webinar held by Georgetown University think tank FutureEd.
“If we have a limited pot of money, we have to direct it where it’s needed the most,” Peske said.
But focusing on pay distribution alone will not solve teacher shortages, said Rob Weil, director of research, policy and field programs for the American Federation of Teachers, during the FutureEd webinar. Weil also recommended against relying on federal pandemic relief money to address teacher vacancies.
“If we’re serious about improving our schools, it’s going to take a collective, long-term, reflected effort. Because it’s not as simple as just paying some bonuses here or there,” Weil said.
Strategic pay in action
There are, of course, other ways to take on teacher shortages, such as improving working conditions, building up teacher apprenticeship programs or improving access to educator preparation programs. Yet researchers point to case studies, like that of the Hawaii State Department of Education, showing that strategic pay is a useful tool.
In January 2020, Hawaii’s Education Department began paying targeted annual $10,000 salary bonuses to teachers in high-needs subject areas like special education and $8,000 annual bonuses to teachers in the state’s language immersion program. Certain geographic areas with higher teacher shortages also saw annual teacher salary bonuses of $3,000 to $8,000. The program carried an estimated price tag of $37 million for 2021 if all positions were filled, according to a report by the Hawaii Education Department.
Less than a year after Hawaii established this strategic pay policy, statewide special education teacher vacancies fell from 122 to 69 positions between October 2019 and October 2020, the department found.
Meanwhile, in spring 2021, the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced an annual $15,000 stipend for certain exceptional student education — formerly known as special education — teachers. At the time, a majority of the district’s teacher vacancies were in these positions, according to the district.
As of now, the district only has three exceptional student education vacancies. That’s a noticeable decrease from the 60 vacancies five years ago, the district said in an emailed statement to K-12 Dive.
Detroit schools have substantially eliminated their overall teacher vacancies, too, according to the district.
“Over the last five years, DPSCD reduced its teacher vacancies significantly by building a pipeline to grow its own teachers, raising teacher salaries across-the-board, and improving recruitment and hiring practices,” the district said. “In 2017 the District opened with more than 300 teacher vacancies and this fall (2022) opened with fewer than 10.”
An ‘underutilized’ solution?
While compensation is not the only solution for teacher shortages, strategic pay may be a “step in the right direction toward recognizing important differences in the labor market for STEM teachers” and for schools that have historically faced challenges finding qualified teachers, said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University.
Strategic pay is an “underutilized,” option, said Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs at NCTQ. But districts face barriers such as union negotiations and budget limitations, she said.
While some districts are trying to experiment with strategic pay using federal COVID-19 relief funds, Kraft said, district leaders may be hesitant to pursue this tactic because those dollars will run out by 2024. As such, districts are more likely to use the federal funds for one-time hiring and retention bonuses rather than a permanent change to their compensation models, he said.
Still, salaries are often shaped by conversations between local education unions and administrators. If state leaders want to push districts in a direction to consider strategic pay, Kraft said statewide incentives can play a role in those discussions.
But a uniform approach at the state level could conflict with local teacher workforce needs, he said. Kraft recently co-authored a working paper for Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform that found teacher shortages can look different at the school, district and state levels.
Another way districts could fund a strategic teacher pay model is by using funds that provide salary raises for teachers with master’s degrees to go toward high-needs positions instead, Holston said.
Districts should think about other forms of expertise and working conditions to determine teacher pay, Holston added.
“That’s a challenge to consider to think completely differently about a compensation structure that typically has historically” prioritized teachers with master’s degrees, she said.
But many questions remain for district leaders regarding strategic pay. Sharie Lewis, director of business services and operations for Parkrose School District in Portland, Oregon, wonders if districts offer incentives, will teachers be required to stay for a set amount of time?
On top of that, Lewis asked, is the policy fair?
When Parkrose schools began weighing options for a $1,000 retention bonus for all teachers, Lewis said she met separately with administrators and the union before making a recommendation. The district did ultimately decide to provide the $1,000 bonus, she said. The bottom line, she said: District leaders should ensure everyone has a voice in this kind of decision.