If you put about 150 IPS teachers in a room and had them rewrite the way the district pays them, what would they come up with?

TeachPlus, an organization that aims to get teachers involved in education policy making, spelled out some answers today.

According to its report, when teachers put themselves in charge of making pay decisions for an IPS-like district in a simulation, they most often chose to:

  • Replace extra pay awarded for earning advanced degrees with tuition reimbursement to help pay for those degrees.
  • Offer $4,000 in bonus pay to teachers who agree to teach in “high need” schools, such as those with high poverty and low test scores. and to raise starting pay in the district by $2,000.
  • Cut in half the union-backed “step” system of annual raises based on experience and education level in order to pay for those new ideas.

With the union contract due to be renegotiated in August and state law requiring a new teacher evaluation system, now is the time to for the district to think big about how its overall systems for teachers can work better.

“The current circumstances present a tremendous opportunity to rethink teacher compensation as a talent retention strategy for IPS,” the report states.

The president of the teachers union for IPS said the union is open to new ideas.

“What it says is pretty much true,” union President Rhondalyn Cornett said. “We know we need to do compensation differently.”

Each year, TeachPlus selects fellows to work on finding solutions to tough problems that face schools. This year, its study of teacher pay was led by teachers Megan Kinsey of Indianapolis Lighthouse Academy charter school, Natalie Merz of IPS School 61 and Rachel Quinn of Harshman Middle School, an IPS math and science magnet school.  IPS board member Caitlin Hannon is the Indianapolis executive director of the national group.

In March, the group invited every district teacher, with the union’s blessing, to attend a simulation run by Education Resource Strategies, a Boston-based non-profit that consults with school districts to help them better utilize their resources.

The large group that showed up was asked to take a crack at redesigning the way teachers are paid and earn raises by redistributing the way the money is spent in a fictional school district that bore many similarities to IPS — it had 45,000 students, 3,000 teachers and a $190 million budget. IPS is a bit smaller at about 30,000 students, 2,800 teachers and a $263 million budget.

Teachers in small groups were given cards with a series of policy choices — such as maintaining the step system of annual raises or new ideas like paying bonuses to the highest rated teachers — with price tags attached. Each group had to mix and match the policy options to assemble a compensation plan that fit within the fictional district’s budget over 10 years.

It was not easy. Teachers quickly found the tradeoffs to be gut-wrenching. In many cases, ideas they preferred, like boosting starting teacher pay, could only be instituted by cutting elsewhere, such as by diminishing the step increases that keep teachers’ wages going up even when the district does not offer across-the-board raises during tough economic times.

That’s not a hypothetical. Tight finances have caused mostly flat salaries over the past five years thanks to pay freezes during a down economy. Although the district’s financial situation has improved, cuts in state aid and rising costs may mean IPS has less to offer when it begins negotiating a new contract with the teachers union this summer than they would like.

And this year, union and district leaders will be aiming to construct a new compensation system as required by a 2011 state law that mandated a statewide overhaul of the way teachers are evaluated and how those evaluations affect their pay.

Even if the TeachPlus exercise seemed to indicate a willingness by teachers to compromise by reducing step increases to pay for hikes in starting pay, and more pay for teachers in schools with the toughest challenges, there is no guarantee their union will agree to those ideas in the delicate give-and-take of bargaining.

In fact, to follow all the TeachPlus recommendations, the district would have to ask the union for even more radical flexibility beyond changes in pay.

The report goes on to suggest a complete overhaul in the way IPS funds its schools by adopting “student-based” budgeting. The idea is to determine the aid needed for each student, based on challenges they face such as poverty, required special education services or the need to learn English, in order to set aside the total dollars allocated for each school. Teachers and staff would then be hired within that set-aside amount.

Under the current IPS labor contract, some schools have less flexibility in hiring, as teachers with seniority have more control over where they choose to work. Because most of the money spent in a school goes toward the cost of paying teachers’ salaries, the current process has led to big differences in how much is spent at schools, according to TeachPlus.

Some schools have clusters of more experienced teachers with higher salaries while others have very inexperienced staffs with lower pay. Teach Plus reports the gap between such schools is huge: the average salary at the 10 highest paid schools is roughly $10,000 a year more, with teachers having about 10 years more experience at those schools.

But the schools with more pay and more experienced teachers don’t always have the highest test scores, the report states, suggesting student needs should be a higher priority for school assignments than teacher preference.

Cornett, the union president, said she is among the IPS teachers who have not had a pay raise in five years. All ideas should be on the table, she said, to steer IPS toward a system under which teachers could expect regular raises.

“We are open to anything,” she said. “We want to hear ideas.”

Other recommendations in the report include include:

  • Rethinking teacher roles. The authors suggest finding ways to give teachers more authority or allow them to play a bigger role in solving the district’s problems. Teachers should have a summer “idea summit” on teacher innovation, the study proposes, and be able to strive for leadership roles through a “career ladder” of jobs with more responsibility.
  • Revamp evaluation. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee already has called for an overhaul of the district’s evaluation system, and the report agrees. It suggests changing the system of picking evaluators and building a new process for determining what they look for.
  • Change teacher training. This is another area where the authors agree with Ferebee that training could be better. The report suggests involving teachers to build a “hub” of training opportunities and creating a summer teacher training retreat.