Wesley Thompson started as a math teacher at Somerset Independent School District’s only middle school in 2009. A first-year teacher and native of San Antonio’s South Side, Thompson graduated from college in 2008 and obtained his alternative teaching certification before becoming an educator in the city’s smallest non-military school district.

At the time, the average salary for a beginning teacher in Somerset ISD was $44,554. Teachers with more than 20 years of experience were making about 12,000 more. Somerset mainly employed young, inexperienced teachers like Thompson. Each year, about 17 percent of teachers left the district, putting Somerset’s turnover rate above the State average.

In Thompson’s second year, the district tried to address some of these issues by offering teachers the opportunity to earn more. If they scored well on the district’s new Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, they could earn a substantial bonus on top of their regular salary.

The idea was simple. Somerset administrators used the prospect of more money to incentivize the highest performing teachers to stay in the district, disregarding the traditional pay scale that had long dictated teacher pay based on longevity.

TAP evaluates teachers in three categories: student growth year-over-year, campus performance on the State accountability system, and classroom assessments.

“When you’re really growing students and you’re really performing in the classroom, you’re getting paid thousands of dollars more than somebody that might not be doing as well or somebody that’s in a bigger district,” Thompson said.

State education officials are hoping to apply a similar concept in districts across the state. In the last legislative session, lawmakers included funding for a teacher pay incentive program in House Bill 3, a landmark school finance reform law. Under the new program, districts will submit proposals for evaluation systems that designate high performing teachers as recognized, exemplary, or master. 

TEA will initially review plans and forward the most promising to Texas Tech University, the school in charge of plan approval.

Successful districts will receive money for their highest performing teachers on the stipulation that they keep 90 percent of the funds on the campus where the teacher is based. However, not all of the money has to go to the high-performing teacher, so the funding can be spread to the other teachers working on the campus.

The State added an incentive component to the program that attempts to match high performers with high-needs and rural campuses. The highest performing teachers at the highest need campuses could earn $32,000 in incentive pay.

The designations of recognized, exemplary, or master stay with a teacher for five years. Should a master teacher leave a district with an approved plan for one without, the money will follow the teacher.

This graph shows teacher incentive allotment funding.

Adjusting to a new system

Implementing a new program won’t come without challenges, though. When Somerset ISD first launched TAP, some veteran teachers struggled to accept that younger colleagues could be making a similar amount with fewer years of experience. Some of those experienced teachers decided to leave the school district, Superintendent Saul Hinojosa said.

“You have experienced teachers who have the possibility of making less money than let’s say a two- or three-year teacher,” Hinojosa said. “We were able to bring in, I’m going to say, teachers who were manageable and who bought into the system. Now it has become part of our culture.”

Thompson, who started with the district as administrators began to use TAP for evaluations and salary decisions, witnessed the transformation. He recently celebrated his 10th anniversary in Somerset and has been consistently earning top marks in the program since it launched. In his highest performing year, Thompson estimates he earned a bonus of $15,000 .

“It never made sense to me that the number of years you put into a job guarantees your salary when results for two teachers can be totally different,” Thompson said. “You should be getting paid based on the value you’re bringing.”

Awarding prestige to the profession

Incentive programs help Gov. Greg Abbott and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath work toward their goal of elevating the profile of teachers while enticing students to enter the profession. On a recent SAT/ACT interest survey, only 4 percent of high school students said they were interested in an education degree.

“Initiatives such as the Teacher Incentive Allotment are improving methods for recruiting the best and brightest to the teaching profession while also retaining our state’s most effective educators,” TEA spokesman Jake Kobersky said.

Traditionally, for a teacher to make more money or advance their careers, they have to become administrators. In 2018-19, the average teacher base pay was just under $55,000, while the average base pay for administrative staff was closer to $86,000.

It creates a cycle. As teachers improve their craft, they must leave the classroom to make more money and less experienced teachers fill the empty spots.

San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez established his own version of a teacher incentive pay system in 2017 to address this issue. SAISD administrators asked district teachers to apply to become a master teacher and initially, the district only opened up the status to 370 teachers.

When the program first launched, SAISD Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Matthew Weber described the program as a way of intentionally “matching our best teachers with those students who have the greatest need.”

A master teacher, deemed one of the district’s highest-performing educators, would take on additional responsibilities and could be placed at high-needs campuses, but would be awarded a stipend of up to $15,000.

Since 2017, the group has grown and Martinez hopes to have 1,000 master teachers in place by 2021-22.

SAISD funds its master teacher program by combining a few revenue streams, including grant money and funds made available by a voter-approved tax increase. The grant money eventually will expire, and Martinez has already stated the district will apply for the new State program.

San Antonio ISD isn’t the only district in San Antonio eager to apply. Somerset district leader Hinojosa plans to be among the first districts to submit a plan to Texas Tech for approval.

TEA is still developing rules and processes for the program but expects to start awarding merit pay to some districts with comprehensive plans by this fall. There’s a high barrier to start the plans – districts have to put time and effort into developing a system that will get approved by Texas Tech. For the successful districts, there’s no defined limit to the money available within the program because it is funded out of the Foundation School Program. 

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.