Michigan policymakers may also want to
consider “career ladders,” which provide financial incentives for
high-performing teachers to continue to work with students in the classroom and
help other teachers with instruction. Because teaching has few possibilities for
career advancement, highly motivated teachers seeking more responsibility and a
better salary may move into administration or leave the profession altogether.
Schools do need high-quality personnel in administration, but having good
teachers routinely leaving the classroom in search of a greater challenge
creates classroom vacancies that may be filled with lower-caliber personnel.
To address this problem, some policymakers
have used career ladders, which can allow teachers to take on additional
responsibilities, such as mentoring, for higher pay without having to abandon
the classroom altogether. Although career ladders are theoretically a promising
teacher quality reform, there is not a large body of research on how these
programs affect student achievement.
One high-quality study by Thomas Dee of
Swarthmore College and Benjamin Keys, a graduate student at the University of
Michigan, does evaluate whether career ladders can raise student achievement.
Their analysis of the Tennessee Career Ladder Evaluation System occurred long
after the termination of the program, but they were able to exploit the fact
that the original experiment used a randomized design. Coincidentally, this
career ladder system had been instituted at the same time and place as the
Tennessee STAR class-size reduction program.
The Tennessee Career Ladder Evaluation System
had five “rungs.” To advance up the ladder, teachers had to meet certain
requirements, but in return, they were offered the chance to earn higher
salaries. At the program’s inception, participation was voluntary for veteran
teachers and required for new teachers, but after the first few years,
participation became wholly voluntary. Nonetheless, reports showed that more
than 90 percent of teachers chose to participate.
Graphic 12 below shows features of the career
ladder program, which was in place for 13 years. As the figure shows, all new
teachers had to start at Rung 1, but teachers who had already been teaching
could be placed at an appropriate career level based on a performance
evaluation. The dollar figures are from the 1980s and 1990s, so these rewards
were worth more at that time.
Performance evaluations at Rungs 1 through 3
were conducted by local district personnel and were usually led by the building
principal. For advancement to Rungs 4 and 5, teachers had to pass performance
evaluations that were completed by independent evaluators from outside the
teacher’s district. Dee and Keys report: “The evaluations that occurred at each
stage of the career ladder assessed teachers on multiple ‘domains of competence’
using several distinct data sources (such as student and principal
questionnaires, peer evaluations, a teacher’s portfolio, and a written test).”
Critics of the program asserted that promotion had become routine and not a
reflection of merit, since 95 percent of participating teachers were successful
at earning Level I (Rung 3) status. However, Dee and Keys point out that
advancing to Levels II and III (Rungs 4 and 5) proved to be more difficult, as
only 79 percent of teachers passed.
Because the career ladder program coincided
with the class-size reduction project, Dee and Keys were able to take advantage
of the random assignment of students and teachers to classrooms at the school
level. Just as with the analysis of the STAR project, this randomization created
relative equality among the classrooms in a given building. Because it is true
that there was some diluting of the original randomization over time due to a
number of factors, Dee and Keys statistically controlled for any systematic
observable differences that may have entered into the sample. Although their
adjustments could address any differences in students, Dee and Keys were still
faced with a self-selection problem with teachers. In other words, if the career
ladder program showed that teachers who participated were more effective at
raising student achievement, the researchers could not determine whether their
success was due to the program making them more effective or to the fact that
those who chose to participate were simply different from — perhaps more
motivated than — those who did not. Dee and Keys note, however, that if
participating teachers were shown to be more successful, it would not matter
whether the program was the cause or simply an indicator. At the very least, the
program itself would be a success because it would have identified, promoted and
rewarded better teachers.
Dee and Keys determined that participating
teachers turned out to be more successful than nonparticipating teachers at
raising student achievement. Specifically, they found that students of
participating teachers scored approximately 3 percentile points higher in math.
These students also scored higher in reading, but the differences were not quite
statistically significant. Dee and Keys placed their findings in context when
they reported: “The estimated gains associated with assignment to a
career-ladder teacher equal 40 to 60 percent of the gains associated with
assignment to a class with roughly 15 students rather than 22.”
Dee and Keys then disaggregated the results
for participating teachers into groups by career ladder level. They found that
teachers on lower career ladder levels were responsible for the gains in math
and that teachers on the higher career ladder levels were responsible for the
gains in reading. Thus, even if participating teachers were more effective than
nonparticipating teachers, the findings were not altogether uniform.
Dee and Keys’ experiment is one of the few
that has measured a career ladder’s effect on student achievement, but it is not
the only study of the career ladder programs. In 1994, Carolyn Horan and Vicki
Lambert released an evaluation of the
Utah Career Ladder Program, which had been adopted by the Utah Legislature a
The enabling legislation for the program allowed school districts to determine
which components they would include in their local career ladder program. Some
of the possible components were extra compensation for time spent on curriculum
development, “inservice training, preparation, and related activities,” and
“additional pay for additional performance.”
Horan and Lambert surveyed principals and
teachers to learn about their perceptions of the program and its individual
components. The results were mixed. For example, while participants reported
that they believed the program was having a positive impact on raising student
achievement, they also felt that the performance bonuses were not administered
Susan Moore Johnson and colleagues at Harvard
University summarized a number of qualitative studies of career ladders and also
generally report that such programs have mixed results.
These collective research findings should indicate that reformers looking to
institute a career ladder program need to be sensitive to teachers’ needs and
preferences, since teachers’ buy-in is essential to any reform’s success.
Policymakers interested in this reform should explore the Teacher Advancement
Program models, which include a career ladder component and which currently
operate in schools in more than a dozen states nationwide.
In a comparison of 1,200 TAP and non-TAP
schools from two states, Matthew Springer, Dale Ballou and Art Peng of
Vanderbilt University found mixed results concerning the impact of TAP on
student test scores.
Springer et al. found that TAP students in elementary grades two through five
demonstrated significantly higher gains in math over the course of a given
school year. However, the researchers also found that TAP had a negative effect
in grades six, seven, nine and 10. Although Springer et al. posited two
hypotheses for the apparently disparate impacts of TAP on student achievement in
different grades, they are not convinced of these explanations. This study also
has limitations. In addition to a small sample size of TAP schools, the study
suffers from incomplete data on TAP implementation. Still, because other studies
of TAP programs were conducted by researchers affiliated with the programs, this
study improves on previous research. Moreover, the authors used a superior,
complex statistical procedure to control for the “self-selection” possibility
that schools that participated in TAP volunteered to do so because they were
already predisposed to pursue higher student achievement gains.