Walters defends teacher incentive-pay plan
February 1, 2023
During a legislative budget hearing, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters told lawmakers his proposed incentive-pay plan, which would provide up to $10,000 in increased pay to the best teachers, will be particularly beneficial in retaining promising young teachers who would enjoy a much more rapid path to higher pay than under the current system.
“We have incredible teachers that have been teaching for 30 years,” Walters said. “We also have some incredible teachers that have been teaching three or four years. I want you to look at some of the state teachers of the year we’ve had here in the state. Several of them are teachers that have taught less than six, seven years. And if we don’t allow for a rewarding incentive system to get to some of those teachers that are doing a great job, really early in their career, these are the folks that jump off.”
Prior reports have shown that nearly half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years in a classroom.
Walters has proposed spending $150 million on a teacher incentive-pay program that would increase qualified teachers’ salaries by $2,500 to $10,000 apiece. The pay increases would be tied to teacher ratings on the state’s existing Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (TLE) system as well as the number of professional learning hours a teacher completes.
While teachers of all ages could receive raises under the program, the benefit would be especially notable for young teachers who are proving to be excellent educators.
Under the state’s current minimum salary schedule, a sixth-year teacher receives a salary of $39,273. But if that teacher receives a top rating, under Walters’ plan that educator would be paid $49,273. Without the incentive-pay increase, that same teacher would not receive a salary matching or exceeding $49,000 until his or her 25th year in the classroom under the state’s current salary schedule.
As noted by Walters, individuals named Oklahoma Teacher of the Year have often been relatively new to the profession. 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan had only four years’ experience in the classroom when he was named the state’s best teacher. The 2019 and 2021 recipients were in their seventh year in the classroom.
Under TLE, teachers are rated, from lowest to best, in the following categories: ineffective, needs improvement, effective, highly effective, or superior. Walters said those rated highly effective or superior would be eligible for incentive-pay increases under his plan.
Currently, Walters said 17,544 Oklahoma teachers, or 43 percent, have been rated highly effective. Another 1,598 teachers have been rated as superior.
Walters said the program would not require repeated yearly evaluations and that teachers would retain their pay increase for multiple years before being evaluated again, even if they take a job in another school district.
Democrats have been critical of basing teacher pay on job performance, and continued to voice their opposition during the budget hearing.
“A merit-based pay system provides a financial incentive to draw away our savviest, our best teachers, to districts where kids, frankly, are easiest to teach,” said state Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Oklahoma City. “And I think we both agree that doesn’t describe any area of concentrated poverty.”
Walters said the system could address that concern by including measurement of student growth as part of a teacher’s evaluation. As a result, teachers who take on students with the greatest learning deficiencies would be rewarded for learning gains even when those students may still have ground to make up, such as a teacher who takes a student from being two years behind to just six months behind.
“As a public-school teacher myself, if I went through the students that I thought I made the biggest difference with or helped along the way, the stories I remember weren’t the kids who came in with an A and left with an A,” Walters said. “It was a kid that came in that had failed, had a difficult life, home environment, that came in and you know what, they might have made a C but making a C for them was a big deal and it took a lot of work, took a lot of drive. And to me, we have to ensure that anything that rewards excellence rewards excellence in teachers that are growing struggling learners.”
State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, said school administrators could simply “game the system” rather than identify the best classroom teachers.
“One way to increase teacher pay in your district, if you had a retention problem, would be simply to declare all your teachers superior,” Waldron said.
Walters noted that teacher evaluations are done at the local level in Texas schools, but the Texas state department of education also reviews those evaluations to ensure their legitimacy. He said Oklahoma officials could provide similar safeguards.
Walters noted that other states, including Texas and Iowa, have successfully implemented similar incentive-pay programs, as have some individual districts in Oklahoma.
“I see this in Texas. They’ve had a dramatic shift in the way they’re talking about teacher pay, in the way that they’re talking about retaining teachers,” Walters said. “And again, in talking with the (Texas) commissioner (of education), he said it’s very routine that districts are getting very, very good at identifying their best teachers, recruiting the best teachers.”