Talented teachers in Dallas ISD can advance their salaries higher and faster than in any other school district in Texas. Salaries for the top-tier teachers will climb to more than $90,000 this year.
The opportunities afforded by the Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) in Dallas appeal to more talented teachers. Beginning teachers are attracted by the opportunity to advance to market average salary levels in as little as five years instead of the typical 10 or more years. Exemplary veteran teachers are drawn by the opportunity to earn $70,000 for their skills in as little as three years.
Following four years of implementation, TEI, in combination with other district efforts, has undoubtedly contributed some astounding results. The number of Improvement Required (IR) campuses in Dallas has dropped from 43 down to only four, lower than any other urban district in the state.
The district is now retaining nearly all of its top-tier teachers, while declining student enrollment is climbing back up. Teacher performance data is being used in all types of strategic staffing decisions, having a positive ripple effect on teaching and learning. So, when asked whether the TEI model works, for Dallas ISD, the answer is yes.
The cost of change
Of course, the cost of this systemic cultural change in an urban district comes at a price financially and politically. But the financial cost isn’t as high as one may expect. There were higher start-up costs for training and development and for grandfathering salaries of veteran teachers. Federal grants helped out, but the cost of the phase-in balanced out against a multi-year approach to performance evaluation.
In the first year of TEI implementation, Dallas ISD spent less than one percent more in teacher salary cost increases than other area districts (3.5% compared to 2.75%). Over the past four years, the growth rate in teacher salary cost has been only 0.2 percent higher than surrounding districts (2.9% compared to 2.7%). Going forward, Dallas expects to maintain a budget growth rate for teacher salary cost comparable to other districts in the area, about 2.5 percent annually.
The political cost of change may have been the most painful. Despite three years of research, development, and piloting; despite countless communications through every channel available; despite gaining support from teacher organizations and the school board initially, there was still confusion, complaints, bad press, and grievances in the first years. Once teachers realized the top dollar salaries couldn’t be earned by everyone, the bloom was off the rose.
Yet the district persisted. An important strategy was a concerted effort to listen to these complaints and make modifications to address valid issues. Surveys and focus groups were used annually and the district never shied away from making needed changes in response—so long as the ultimate goals weren’t compromised.
That perseverance has paid off. Karry Chapman, chief human capital officer during this period, points out many of their teachers today have never known any other system except TEI. Accolades for the Dallas ISD model are now pouring in. Support from the school board has grown stronger and the local media has been generally supportive. State leaders are beginning to tout Dallas ISD as a potential model for other schools to retain the best teachers.
Evaluation model is complex
So why don’t more school districts implement the same model for teacher pay? One answer is the complexity of the teacher evaluation system unique to Dallas ISD. Two critical issues drove the design:
- a decision to include all teachers from all learning environments in the plan
- the need to balance attainability for teachers with financial sustainability for the district. Those two issues drove the need to design a rigorous, data-driven evaluation model that’s complex and challenging for teachers and the general public to understand.
For most teachers in Dallas, evaluation has three components—teacher performance (observation); student achievement (assessment results); and student experience (student surveys). Weighted adjustments are made for teachers who don’t have access to all three components, resulting in four categories of teacher evaluation. Scores are averaged across two years and then compared across all teachers within a similar category to establish “cut-points” for the summative performance ratings.
While critics may decry this as a quota system, there’s an opportunity for as many as 20 percent of teachers to be recognized for exemplary performance. Simply stated, all teachers can’t be above average and something must be done to control inflated ratings. This is the essence of the struggle over performance pay for teachers.
Adding to the complexity is the need for a data management system to store and process all of this performance data and the need to continually train and calibrate principals on how to apply the evaluation rubric. Dallas added 18 positions dedicated to the TEI rollout through a grant and Dallas has a robust research and development department to carry out all of the required data analysis.
Dallas ISD officials have been listening and responding to the critics all along the way. The first model spread rewards too thinly and most teachers ended up without a pay raise. The plan had too many compensation levels and the hiring scale wasn’t adjusted for market inflation each year. In the third year, small increases were added for those who maintained their performance.
This year, the district plans to provide a more competitive general pay increase of two percent to all teachers who maintain performance with larger increases to the highest performers.
Chapman, the former chief, and Suzy Smith, manager of performance management, sat down with us to reflect on other lessons they have learned:
- Brace for a dip in enthusiasm after the initial year. Don’t relax your communication efforts after the launch.
- Have very intentional messaging to staff and community. A thorough and lengthy process of development and gaining buy-in was very important.
- Provide resources for ongoing training, monitoring, and support for principals.
- Include long-term projections in the plan design for sustainable funding and adjustability.
No turning back
Dallas ISD has accomplished what no other district has been able to—a complete and utter upheaval of the traditional pay for experience model. Most performance pay models in schools add on to a traditional salary schedule. Dallas replaced the salary schedule wholesale. All teachers are expected to reach a proficient performance level and will be paid at an average salary to maintain that proficiency. For those who rise above, Dallas will pay considerably more for their talent and hard work.
How TEI will look in the future depends on the results of the local TRE election in November. If it passes, funding for the current model is assured for the next five years. If not, more plan adjustments may be needed for sustainable funding. But one thing is assured either way, Dallas ISD has no reason to consider a return to the traditional pay scale based solely on years of service.