How To Fix the Failing US Education System – Commission-based Compensation for Teachers

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I just had a “brilliant” idea on how to fix the failing US Education System. Well, perhaps not brilliant but hopefully thought-provoking. I don’t think that it would or could ever be implemented but I really think we need to start thinking outside the box in order to re-position the US globally in so many different ways. For me, this is particularly important as I have three elementary school children who, in 10-15 years, will be struggling to find their way through life, to make a contribution and to prove their self-worth. But our educational system is fundamentally broken. Children are less prepared to meet the demands of life head-on, and, in comparison to other countries, produce lack-luster results when it comes to knowledge, critical thinking and basic preparation to survive and compete in a global workplace.

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What kicked me off on exploring how to fix this problem was a couple of things. Last night, I attended a parent orientation for incoming 6th graders at our local middle school. I was incredibly impressed by the passion, devotion and energy that all of the teachers that presented the class curriculum and what kids in the middle school will be taught. I was almost jealous of the structure, planning and topics. I was lucky to have a fairly good education as a child, and attended very highly ranked schools in California. But since then, the entire California education system has fallen way behind due to budget cuts AND the fact that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to attract talented teachers. Many teachers do what they do purely out of the passion to help mold young minds. They are definitely not in it for the money. Being in the land of technology innovations, I can definitely see the lure to join a startup or technology company with the possibility of wild financial success over becoming part of education and watch as budgets are cut, staff is downsized and you have to basically do more with less.

So, I attended the orientation and was really excited for my incoming 6th grader. 6th grade transitions are extremely difficult and scary (probably more for the parents than the kids). The initial wide-eyed and bushy-tailed aspect of the new 6 grader will quickly morph into a student sucking in skills and information that will prepare them for the future…hopefully. But it takes passion to start and build the learning flame within each student. And THAT process only comes through inspired teaching. In my mind, teachers are and have been the un-sung heroes of our societal fabric. We expect them to be there, to treat our children as if they are our own and prepare them for the future.

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But how do we attract people into a teaching profession? That is the challenge to us all now. Better teachers produce better students which builds a better workforce and society as a whole. So, if attracting better teachers will help, one of the main things that needs to be done is to compensate them appropriately for their skills and passion. The other thing that got me thinking about this today was a video rant that was produced by “Daddy Brad” who is a fellow Cast of Dad member and who produces content for DadLabs.com. I have gotten to know Brad over several months and have learned to appreciate his “Southern delivery” of his messages. He produced a video recently that talks about this very topic but “shouts” it at you from the perspective of a frustrated parent. Watch his video below and listen to it carefully, in between the rants and shouts, he’s delivering the same message that so many parents around the country are echoing in different ways:

After watching Daddy Brad’s video, I came up with the “solution” that will get us back on track with Education. The United States is a “money hungry” society. When money speaks, people flock to it and listen. Being listed as the “most successful” or “richest” person is a badge of “honor” that people strive to attain. When was the last time that Inc. Magazine produced a list of the “Top 10 Teachers” in America? I think they should. Unfortunately, the only way that I see this happening is to compensate teachers in a dramatically different way.
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My Education Revamp Proposal

When a teacher or faculty member gazes out at the tabula rasa (Latin for “clean slate”) before them in a classroom, what they are also viewing is “earning potential.” I am by far, not an economist nor even come close to pretending to be one. But I do know what drives people…that of making money. If there is an industry or profession that is hot, it is typically because of the earning potential which translates to a “better life” (but I don’t necessarily agree with that statement – you CAN be happy and NOT earn gobs of money). For teachers, they only truly get the benefit of hopefully seeing their students succeed in what they do. That feedback loop only happens occasionally when a student comes back many years later to thank the teachers for the groundwork they laid when the student was younger.

But what if we did this: pay teachers a commission against the earnings that their students realize in the future. I understand that this would be incredibly complicated to administer and orchestrate, but it could be tied to something akin to a State tax. Indirectly we are doing this through property taxes and other taxes, but the money gets sucked into a massive black hole and rarely trickles down far enough to ever reach the pocketbooks of our under-paid teachers.

So let’s say that once a student starts earning an income, that 0.01% (arbitrary percentage) of their annual income in the future would go back to their teachers. Obviously, this is a very small percentage and would be spread across a huge number of teachers. For example, my kids have a total of 6 teachers for K-Grade 5 (Elementary School), in Middle School (6-8 grades) they may have 15-20 teachers, and then in High School, 25-30 teachers, making a total of anywhere between 45-60 teachers. If that student earned $30,000 for one year, 0.01% of that salary translates to $3. That means that each teacher that taught that child would receive between $0.07 and $0.05 per student per year.

In elementary school, teachers might have 20-40 students per year, which would mean an earning potential of $1.00 to $2.80 per year per graduating. For High School, teachers instruct many more students (150-200?) which means that their “commissions” could be anywhere between $7.50 and $14 per year per graduating class. To keep the example simple, let’s say the teacher earns $10 each year for that graduating class (which assumes that salaries of their students never change). If they teach for 10 years, just that class alone would earn the teacher $100 over 10 years. But that is just for one class. If you factor in the subsequent classes, that teacher on year #10 years would actually earn: $100 + 90 + 80 + 70 + 60 + 50 + 40 + 30 + 20 + 10 = $550.

If, for example, a High School teacher’s students averaged $50,000 per year annual salary, taught 200 students per year, their annual commission for that class would be $20 using a per student commission of $0.10. For year #10, their commission would be: $200 + 180 + 160 + 140 + 120 + 100 + 80 + 60 + 40 + 20 = $1100.

Someone PLEASE check my math! (If I have made a mistake which I’m sure I have, I will definitely correct it!)

Again, realize that these number are rudimentary and only are to be used as an example. Also, the salary of $30,000 was used for this example. I am working on a spreadsheet that can illustrate this, but it’s a bit complicated. Anyone want to create an interactive spreadsheet to figure this out? If you do, please post it.

The longer you teach, the more students who are paying your commission. This encourages teachers to really be in it for the long run as well as give education a “bonus structure” that makes becoming a teacher much more financially attractive and rewarding. With the attraction of higher earning potential, more people will apply to become teachers, hopefully driving up the quality of the applicants. Hopefully higher-qualified teachers in turn produce better prepared students. Also, the smarter and better prepared the children, the higher their earning potential which directly translates to a higher commission by the teacher in the end. It is a cycle which potentially builds upon itself.

Obviously it’s not a perfect proposal, has plenty of holes and other questions that would need to be resolved, but I believe we need a dramatic shift in our thinking to properly compensate these “heroes of society” (the teachers) and to incentivize and inspire others to become teachers.

Some questions that come to my mind:

  • How do you regulate the grading system?
  • How do you prevent teachers from simply passing as many students as possible in order to grow their “commission pool”?
  • Do you need to average out the success rate/graduation rates?
  • How do you measure the “quality” vs. “quantity”?
  • Do you need to produce measurables that are salary related?
  • How does the commission work with tenure or does it?
  • Is there an unfair weighting for areas of the country where unemployment is high or the salaries are lower?
  • What is the proper percentage for the commission?
  • How do you prevent teachers from trying to load up on students (e.g., larger class sizes)?
  • Would Elementary School teachers be unfairly under-compensated because of having fewer students?
  • Should teachers who produce students who go on to receive degrees in higher education be compensated differently?
  • What happens when a teacher retires? Perhaps that commission goes into a general pool that is used by the schools instead of going to the teacher.

Some of these questions work with the self-regulating aspect of the commission structure. Teachers should want to produce students who are smarter and more prepared since they may have a higher earning potential. If you have a huge class size, and a majority of your students are low salary earners or unemployed, your commissions are lower, but could be equal to a teacher who has a much smaller class size that produces higher earners. However it does seem that there needs to be some sort of a weighted-average that comes into play in order to prevent teachers from taking on too many students.

I would love to know how you would revamp the US Educational System or how you would tweak, change or add to my proposal. The most important thing here is increasing the awareness and starting dialog around this. All school districts are struggling to simply survive right now. We need an “Educational Bailout” or a series of programs to get us out of this hole that we have dug ourselves into. This article is merely designed to hopefully start you thinking in a different way. I WANT FEEDBACK and IDEAS!

HTD says: Do you think teachers should be compensated based on the earnings of the children they teach? If so, how would you do it? If not, what would you do differently? Let me know!

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9 Responses

  1. The immediate problem I’d see (beyond the bureaucracy needed to implement this) would be that bad teachers would be rewarded the same as good teachers.

    Take me, for example. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs D., hated kids, hated boys especially and, for some reason, particularly loathed me. I actually dropped out of school in the 2nd grade for a short time. (I wasn’t put in another classroom because the principal insisted that she was his best teacher.) She would constantly belittle me in front of the class, tell me I’d never succeed (because I couldn’t cut/color in the lines) and would give me extra busy-work homework that she had no intention of grading. In short, 2nd grade was a living hell for me.

    Meanwhile, my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. S., saw how well I did on a reading test, got me to take the advanced one and, when I aced that one, put me in the advanced reading section. This led to honors classes, AP courses and academic success. She single-handedly made school enjoyable again for me. If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d be a success today.

    Now back to commissions. How would you compensate Mrs. D less and Mrs. S more? Or would they get the same amount (perhaps slightly varied for 2nd grade versus 3rd grade)? How would you add in the myriad of other teachers that I’d had over the years and weight them based on how good or bad they were? It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice just seems like it’d get horribly complex.

  2. @TechyDad
    Yes, you are right, it could potentially unfairly compensate those “bad” teachers. But I would (unrealistically) hope that the “trickle up” theory would work here. If there is more competition among teaching applicants, schools can start to become more selective on the quality of the teacher that they hire. Over time, potentially the bad would be weeded out and replaced by the good. It’s similar in the business world. The under-performers are let go and the over-performers are rewarded…at least idealistically.

    I agree that my proposal (if half-baked) could potentially be a management and administrative nightmare. My idea was not to “solve” it per se, but to start talking about it differently. Perhaps there needs to be a loopback from the student (report cards for teachers) where additional compensation could be derived from positive feedback. Of course, I don’t remember the names of ALL of my teachers.

    This also is not a change that could happen overnight either. Perhaps it is merely wishful thinking!

  3. The problem isn't money or poor teachers. Many countries spend a lot less and have worse teachers and acheive more than the US. The problem is the acceptance of mediocrity as the goal. We're so worried about not leaving anyone behind that the students capable of more aren't being challenged or pushed.

  4. As a teacher, I don't know that you can compensate a teacher based upon the earnings on the student 10-15 years down the road. Being that you only have that student for one year at best, how would you know that what you taught them has affected what their salary is later on in life? Are you going to punish a teacher by giving them a lower compensation just because they had the student in the 7th grade for one year for one period a day and now 10 years later the student is making minimum wage? That is ridiculous!!!

    I agree as a teacher, we do need a way to attract better teachers. But having a compensation system will not attract better teachers. It is our government being willing to spend the money on education. Right now we are in a teacher crisis where most school districts are laying off teachers instead of hiring teachers because of the fact that the budget cuts that are happening state wide in just about every state. There are great people out there that are training to becoming teachers. It is not that we are choosing not to hire them, it is the government not willing to give the money to hire them.

    I understand what you are trying to say as a parent and your concern, I get that. But like I said the problem is not teachers. It is the people that are in DC that are running our country that have confined and handcuffed educators with budget cuts and No Child Left Behind.

  5. Thanks for the comment. I realize that my “solution” was far from not only reality but from anything at all. It was a mere idea that I had one day. I think the biggest problem is that the system is completely broken and we need to do something completely drastic and DIFFERENT to change it. Commissions obviously was just a random idea but I'm sure that there are many many smart people out there that could come up with something better. There are many nations where education and teachers are the top priority.

    I applaud you for being a teacher. My father is a professor, as is my step mother. I taught English abroad.

    I wasn't saying that the problem is teachers, rather that the problem is with everything from the top down. We need to encourage children to be teachers, to have a government that cuts everything else but education, that gives grants or what have you to help teachers, administrators and students go further with MORE.

    I realize that my idea hit a nerve with people who read my post. THAT was exactly what I wanted to happen. I want people to think about it and talk about it. If we remain passive, NOTHING will happen.

    I appreciate you taking the time to comment!

  6. Was this really just an idea you had a few days ago? There was huge talk about this sort of thing down here in Florida earlier this year, and Governer Crist's FB page was inundated with a ton of comments asking him to veto SB 6/HB 7189. (Which I believe he did but I'm not 100% certain.) The following links are to articles that explain what SB 6/HB 7189 proposed way better than I could:

    http://blogs.tampabay.com/schools/2010/03/thras
    http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/q-am

  7. Actually if you look at the date, I wrote this quite a few months ago. It was really just to get the ideas down and get people thinking about things.

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