By Len Lazarick

Big increases in teacher salaries along with the creation of statewide career ladder that would put teachers in line with other “high-status professions” are among the key recommendations a statewide commission on school funding will make to the legislature this year.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, charged with looking at a wide range of education issues, will also recommend teams of teachers be given greater autonomy and spend less time in the classroom and more time collaborating on teaching strategies.

The Kirwan commission, nicknamed for its chairman, former university chancellor Brit Kirwan, reached broad but tentative consensus on these and other changes in how teachers are recruited, paid and deployed at its meeting Thursday in Annapolis.

The commission made no attempt to estimate how much the changes would cost, but they recognized that there would be a hefty price tag that would have to be calculated in coming months.

The changes are an attempt to deal with a sharp drop in the number of students studying to be teachers at Maryland’s universities. Sixty percent of teachers in Maryland K-12 schools come from out of state. Half of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

“Current salary levels combined with working condition are having a negative impact on recruitment and retention of teachers,” the revised draft report says. (The commission made some minor changes in the revised draft and shifted some paragraphs, but the basic recommendations, the second document in this PDF file, are intact.)

Major policy shift

Big pay hikes and creation of a career ladder leading to the position of master teacher based on teaching performance and not academic credentials are an attempt to bring Maryland in line with best practices in high-performing school systems in other countries, particularly Shanghai and Singapore.

This would be a significant shift in policy for the state. “This is going to take a lot of work to explain to our members,” said Steve Hershkowitz, policy research specialist for Maryland State Education Association, the union representing over 70,000 educators.

The proposals would be implemented over a 10-year period, but closing the pay gap with high-status professions requiring comparable education, such as nurses, certified public accountants, engineers and architects would happen over the next four or five years.

Hard to pay for

Prospects were dim for actually paying for the policy changes without new taxes, based on a presentation by legislative budget analyst David Romans. It showed structural deficits recurring in a few years just based on existing programs for health and education. Because of existing entitlements and education aid formulas, state spending is rising faster than state revenues.

“There doesn’t appear we have an easy way to fund new initiatives,” Romans said.

The only representative of business on the commission, Scott Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Merritt Properties, agreed that the salary jumps were “necessary” to retain teachers, but “we need to think of ways to be creative. It’s not just about the money, it’s about innovation.”

There was intense debate over some of the particulars, and the commission has yet to work out many of the details.

David Steiner, a member who is director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy as well as a member of the State Board of Education, emphasized that the pay hikes need to be coupled with rigorous performance standards, as they are in the Washington, D.C. school system.

Chester Finn, another Hogan-appointed member of the state board and a long-time education policy expert, objected to a proposal about reducing class sizes, saying that there was no research to show that class size made much difference unless the number of students per class was very small.