Proposals for a Cost-Conscious Era: Gold Star Teachers

By 10/13/2010

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(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

Given today’s shrinking budgets and the tough half-decade that looms for K-12 funding, we can no longer afford to remain wedded to “this…and that” reform or to be blasé about whether we’re getting sufficient bang for our buck. However, the kind of shift in mindset that’s necessary will not happen on its own. After all, for decades, K-12 schooling has been a place where superintendents and principals earn much grief for making cuts but little recognition for smart savings or boosting cost-effectiveness. What’s needed most are politically viable proposals that make it easier for local, state, and national leaders to get serious about K-12 productivity.

This week, I’m touching upon four such ideas that I’ve written about recently for National Review and (along with my colleague Olivia Meeks) for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Today, I want to talk about taking a first step in rethinking the utilization and compensation of teachers through a “Gold Star Teachers” initiative. (Check out the WPRI piece for a more detailed version of the proposal.)

For decades, the go-to school improvement recipe has been to reduce class size. Any challenge to this status quo encounters a buzz saw of opposition from parents and teachers who like small classes. That’s why national teacher-student ratios are down to 15:1 today. Yet the research backing across-the-board class reduction is thin, at best. International evidence shows no simple relationship between class size and student achievement. Some high-performing nations boast middle or high school class sizes of 40 to 50 students. Small classes are costly and the need to keep adding bodies forces school systems to be less selective and training to be less focused.

Given that 55% of K-12 spending funds teacher salaries and benefits, you can’t cut costs without boosting the productivity of good teachers–which requires increasing class size. But trying to sell that argument to parents or teachers is a dead end. Hence, the Gold Star program offers teachers who are at least reasonably effective the opportunity, should they so choose, to teach more kids per class and to be rewarded for taking on a larger workload. Such a state-level program would offer a chance to reshuffle the incentives and create a productivity-enhancing dynamic.

Teachers whose students post larger-than-normal gains for at least two consecutive years would be eligible to opt into the program. While I have consistently explained that value-added data systems have real limitations, they do provide a systematic way to identify teachers whose students are at least improving in math and reading at better-than-average rates. This gives some assurance that these teachers are at least reasonably effective. Participating teachers would teach up to 50% more students than normal–say, 36 students rather than 24–and would be rewarded for their increased workload. Continued participation would depend on a teacher’s students continuing to make larger-than-normal gains. Given data limitations, states would be advised to pilot such programs in grades four through eight.

While parents prefer small classes in general, small classes also frustrate parents whose children can’t get seats in the class of a heralded teacher. The Gold Star program lowers these barriers by allowing access to the most effective teachers for more kids. Given the choice between a Gold Star Teacher serving more children and the alternative, many or most parents will likely prefer the larger class. But it is essential that it be a parental choice and not an administrative fiat.

Teachers and taxpayers would also win big. On average, given current teacher salaries and benefits, increasing class size by one student saves something like $3,000; so allowing a talented teacher to instruct 36 rather than 24 saves up to $36,000. Awarding the teacher half that amount yields an $18,000 productivity bonus (a 35% bump for the median teacher). The state and district would split the other $18,000. Even on a trial basis in grades four through eight, such a program could help states shave school spending by two or three percent–tallying hundreds of millions in some cases while rewarding excellent educators.

There are obviously a slew of tough logistical and practical questions. Can one do a version of this in sparsely settled rural settings? How might this work in very small schools? How would uneven student numbers complicate the effort? And how might this play out in terms of virtual schooling? It’s not hard to imagine many other questions, besides. These are good and useful queries, and deserving of attention as state officials ask how a version of the “Gold Star” initiative might help reward productive teachers, boost cost-effectiveness, and better serve their students.

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