A teacher and a student presenting to class, photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

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(The RAND Blog)

September 18, 2019

Elevating Teacher Voices, Along with Their Salaries to Professionalize Teaching in Louisiana

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

by Julia H. Kaufman

On June 18, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed the state's 2019-20 budget during a visit to Baton Rouge's Capitol Elementary School, promoting the $1,000 raise the new budget is giving to every Louisiana public school teacher. Governor Bel Edwards' move follows in the footsteps of teacher pay raises in many other states this year, including Alabama, South Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Georgia, among others.

Salary raises are a good thing. They can provide some relief from the financial stress that many teachers experience, and several studies have linked higher teacher pay to lower teacher turnover (PDF).

Small salary increases do not go far enough to advance teaching as a lifelong profession with opportunities for promotion.

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Yet, across-the-board salary increases for teachers have had only modest impacts on student achievement. Small salary increases also do not go far enough to advance teaching as a lifelong profession with opportunities for promotion, since they aren't a strong incentive for teachers to learn and grow.

Public school teaching never makes the top-ten lists for high-demand college degrees. Why? For one, the career ladder for U.S. teachers is largely nonexistent. After teachers get hired in most schools across the U.S., they are not on track for advancement, more challenging responsibilities, and new job titles. Instead, they typically get incremental raises over their time as a teacher, often based on how long they stay in teaching. And incremental raises do not incentivize teachers to learn more and do more within their profession.

In 2013, an inaugural white paper (PDF) of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year named five key structures that had the potential to transform teaching into a more robust and pursued profession: professional career continuums, a distributed leadership model to spread out leadership responsibilities among both principals and teachers, time and opportunity for teacher collaboration, actionable feedback to inform teachers' practice, and adoption of guiding principles for the profession. Teacher leadership is a major emphasis within all five structures. Teachers are encouraged through professional career continuums to be leaders, lead collaboration in their schools, participate in the provision of actionable feedback, and help develop guiding principles for the profession.

According to our recent research in Louisiana, teacher leadership and direct communication with teachers are big parts of the state's education policy efforts. Since 2013, the state has been cultivating a group of thousands of teacher leaders. These teacher leaders attend regional and statewide teacher summits where educators share what they know with one another. The 2019 Teacher Leader Summit in June was attended by more than 6,500 educators. The state took this one step further starting in 2017 by creating a teacher leader pipeline that provides certification and distinctions to teachers who complete a series of content-rich, standards-aligned and curriculum-specific trainings and performance assessments focused on English language, arts and mathematics instruction. Louisiana teachers appear to be eager for these trainings. Over 600 teachers have already voluntarily completed them. And, out of the roughly 50,000 public school teachers in Louisiana, 2,300 are enrolled in these trainings for the 2019-20 school year.

Louisiana's direct communication line to teachers, and efforts to cultivate teacher leaders with deep knowledge of state standards and curricula, may be paying off. According to our research, teachers in Louisiana: know more about their state standards, use standards-aligned instructional materials more regularly, participate in more standards-aligned professional learning opportunities, and deliver instruction that is more aligned with standards compared to teachers across the U.S. Our research cannot demonstrate that Louisiana's policies are directly causing teachers to use more standards-aligned materials and engage in more instructional practices aligned with their state K-12 academic standards. However, the differences we observed between Louisiana teachers and other teachers across the U.S. are very unlikely to have occurred by chance, and they are likely tied to how the state is interfacing directly and regularly with teachers.

To be sure, salary raises have a direct impact on teachers' day-to-day lives. But efforts like those in Louisiana to elevate teachers' voices, and not just their salaries, are more likely to make a real difference for the teaching profession by creating a clear career ladder. The state's efforts could also be cultivating a teaching force that is providing students with the curricula and instruction they need to achieve at higher levels.


Julia Kaufman is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.