For the first time, reading teachers will be worth much more than art and music educators in some Houston ISD schools this year.

In a stark departure from the way teachers are usually paid, new HISD Superintendent Mike Miles announced this month that teacher salaries at 28 campuses will depend, in large part, on the subject and grade taught. Traditionally, public school teachers’ base salary is determined by just one metric: years of experience.

Under Miles’ plan, educators teaching a handful of subjects — including English, reading, math, science and special education — at the 28 schools will generally make several thousands of dollars more than those teaching social studies and early elementary grades. The gap will be even bigger for those teaching elective classes, who stand to make roughly $10,000 to $20,000 less than some of their peers.

The approach is a rare statement of employee worth by Miles, who is bucking state and national trends — and infuriating some educators —  by valuing some teachers more than others. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appointed Miles to lead HISD as part of state sanctions against the district.

“We all have to shift our thinking about how we compensate teachers,” Miles said. “No organization can maximize its effectiveness if what it values is disconnected from how it compensates people.”

Some educators and teachers unions, however, fear Miles’ plan emphasizes standardized testing at the expense of the whole child. Most of the highest-paid educators will teach grades and subjects prioritized on state exams.

For Andrea Negri, who teaches digital media classes and runs the yearbook club at Bellaire High School, Miles’ approach signals that “we’re not as important as the core classes.” 

Although the new pay scales won’t immediately impact her school — Bellaire traditionally ranks among the highest-scoring in HISD, while most of the 28 campuses have historically struggled —  she sees the move as a district-wide “devaluing” of elective courses.

“It’s very black-and-white thinking that one type of class must be more important because there’s test scores associated with it,” Negri said. “I have kids who say, ‘The only reason I came to school today is because of this elective.’”

Placing a price tag

For decades, public school districts have stuck to the tried-and-true method of paying teachers based on their experience level. The strategy provides educators with a level of consistency and has historically enjoyed union support.

For now, HISD will continue to use a traditional, experience-based salary scale at all district-run campuses other than the 28 Miles is directly overhauling.

In recent years, many Texas districts have taken part in a state-sponsored pay-for-performance system, in which teachers are rewarded for scoring high on evaluations created by their school districts.

But few, if any, have altered base salaries to the same degree as HISD. Miles has said his highest priorities include raising literacy rates, closing achievement gaps between affluent and low-income students in core subjects and addressing HISD’s long history of special education troubles.

HISD’s compensation plan at schools targeted for overhaul is a “pretty significant” departure from how most other school districts approach teacher pay, said HD Chambers, executive director of the Texas School Alliance. His organization helps advocate on behalf of 45 large Texas districts.

Chambers, who served as Alief Independent School District’s superintendent for 12 years, said higher salaries can help attract teachers in hard-to-staff schools. Campuses in higher-poverty neighborhoods typically struggle to recruit and retain top teachers.

But Chambers said he understands the challenge of “threading the needle” between attracting talent and not alienating educators in lower-paid roles. 

“How do you place that economic value on one section of education and not be seen as though you are less concerned with the rest of what the public education experience is supposed to deliver?” he said. 

“Public education since its inception has been, in large part, based on an equalized compensation plan that, if I teach Algebra in high school and you teach welding … we bring the same value to educating the kids.”

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    A new ‘experiment’ 

    Failing to strike that balance could lead to “unintended outcomes,” said Catherine Horn, dean of the University of Houston College of Education. 

    Research shows that when schools place a higher premium on raising test scores, it can inadvertently spur “curriculum constriction,” where teachers narrow their emphasis to concepts that will be evaluated on exams, she said.

    Still, “there’s a logic” to Miles’ plan, Horn said, and she appreciates the effort to lift teacher salaries. Miles has promised that no teacher at the 28 schools will earn less than the year before, and all educators will receive a $10,000 stipend in 2023-24.

    “I don’t think he’s made bad choices in where he’s placing resources,” Horn said. “We’ll know shortly in the strategy whether test scores go up.”

    But Zeph Capo, president of the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, called the plan “extremely myopic and short-sighted.”

    He’s particularly upset that prekindergarten through second grade teachers in the 28 schools will get paid thousands of dollars less than their colleagues in the third grade — the first year that students take state standardized tests.

    “We’re getting a real look at the true motives for the takeover now,” Capo said. “This is a huge opportunity to experiment with a large urban district.”

    Miles, for his part, emphasized that boosting student achievement is his primary motive.

    “I am clear about what our kids need and how important it is,” Miles said. “We have to prioritize that need.”

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    Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...