Bend-La Pine Schools are in the middle of a game-changing pilot program that overhauls the way teachers are paid—compensating them based on their professional growth instead of number of years on the job and college credits.
Changing the status quo is never simple, but Bend-La Pine’s effort shows a willingness to try something new. “Building the plane while we’re flying it,” is the recurring metaphor both proponents and skeptics use to describe the work underway.
The Professional Advancement and Support System, or PASS, was developed over the past decade in Bend-La Pine. The district implemented a pilot program in 2015. Chalkboard Project helped facilitate the district’s effort with a grant, and through its work with the Teacher Incentive Fund and TeachOregon.
Traditionally, teachers have been paid according to a single salary schedule, which builds in raises, or “steps,” based on years of experience and educational attainment.
PASS does away with the conventional salary schedule, instead basing pay on professional growth as teachers advance through their careers at different levels: early career educator, professional educator, and master educator. It is a groundbreaking experiment, unique in the state, based on the proposition that recognizing teachers for working to improve their practice will ultimately improve student outcomes.
“This is all about supporting teachers,” says Lora Nordquist, Bend-La Pine assistant superintendent overseeing the pilot. “This is the most innovative system based on best practices I’ve seen nationally.”
For the past two years, first- and second-year teachers hired in the district (about 85 out of some 1,000 teachers total district-wide) moved through PASS. A small cohort of more experienced teachers volunteered to take part in PASS; however, the “professional” and “master” level requirements are still under construction by the district.
As currently structured, new teachers are given five years to complete a set of courses and projects, though teachers have the option of accelerating their pace in order to increase their pay. For example, teachers submit videos of themselves teaching in the classroom and write a report reflecting on their teaching practice, and approach to classroom environment and student engagement. The work is reviewed by a panel of district educators to ensure it meets professional standards.
“I’m willing to stick with it to see where it goes,” says Erin Carroll, a teacher at Summit High School and one of the volunteer experienced teachers. “I support developing a system other than the traditional pay scale to reward teachers for the work they do…. Some teachers love it and some hate it. I’m in the middle.”
Carroll chose to take part in PASS because she would be able to get a significant boost in salary. The work she put in to meet requirements made her more reflective about her practice, but she but acknowledges some of her peers prefer the stability of the salary schedule: “There are pros and cons.”
The Bend Education Association played an integral part in developing PASS, and agreed to a five-year memorandum of understanding with the district (ending in 2019) to implement the pilot. The relationship between the district and teachers union is one of the more remarkable aspects of the pilot, especially considering that any proposal to change how teachers are paid is bound to provoke strong reactions.
“Ideally, the goal is to come up with a system that helps teachers be better teachers and rewards them for that,” says Janelle Rebick, teachers union president. “Nobody wants this to fail, but we’re still trying to see if we can make it work.”
A clear-cut success of the work, Rebick says, is the district’s induction and mentoring program, designed to support teachers starting out their careers. But PASS does require teachers to take on additional requirements on top of their heavy workloads, which can sometimes lead to frustration. “Your first few years of teaching is survival, as you’re developing lesson plans and classroom rules and expectations,” she says. “Now they also go to classes and take time to do extra work—it gets stressful.”
Rebick also notes the PASS system starts every new teacher at the same salary, regardless of their education. She worries that teachers with advanced degrees may not apply to the district because they aren’t eligible for additional compensation as they would be in other places.
The district continues to explore ways to ensure PASS is successful. One possibility is making the system voluntary, allowing teachers to opt in or out, Rebick says. “We don’t have any problem with trying something new,” she adds. “We need to make tweaks to make it work, but we’re not there yet.”
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