The Teacher Career Pathway at KIPP Austin, Part 1

Emily Schneider-Krzys is the Chief Talent Officer for KIPP Austin, a district of 10 public charter schools in Austin, Texas. In her role, Emily leads the district’s recruitment, human resources, and talent development functions. Previously, Emily served as the National Director of Training and Support for Citizen Schools. We recently had the chance to talk to Emily about overseeing and implementing the Teacher Career Pathway at KIPP Austin.

Thriving Schools: How did you go about designing KIPP Austin’s Teacher Career Pathway?

Emily: First of all, we called all the people that we really admired, that we knew were getting results for kids, and asked them, “What are you doing to keep your great teachers?” Their overwhelming response was that we needed to focus on teacher development. Like all of us, teachers are happiest when they receive exceptional development that fits their needs and helps them grow. At the same time, we were having discussions internally with our teachers and hearing them ask, “Where’s my career going?” So we really tried to use the Teacher Career Pathway to merge those two ideas – providing great development and acknowledging and celebrating the growth of a teacher’s career.

Thriving Schools: What were the most significant obstacles you faced in creating the Teacher Career Pathway? And how would you recommend navigating them?

Emily: The first obstacle is to fully appreciate all the teams and individuals needed to make a program like this work. We obviously knew that Academics and Special Education would be critical partners, but I didn’t realize that all teams would be impacted. Our program relies heavily on student data and goal-setting. So that means we needed to bring in our technology team and assessment coordinators. There’s this huge financial modelling piece, so we needed our CFO and financial analyst. There were several new policies and agreements, so we had to have our controller and HR folks on board. And because our funders were very interested in this, we needed to make sure our development team was on top of the program and being true to what we were doing. So I wish I would’ve brought together the right working group sooner and more frequently!

Thriving Schools: What other issues did you face?

Emily: The next issue I want to address is that once you start talking about the benefits of the program – increased compensation, career advancement, and differentiated PD – people get really excited and start thinking “It’s going to be like Google around here!” But we’re never going to be Google. So you want to be like – “Yeah, it’s going to be awesome” – but I don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. I can’t bankrupt KIPP Austin and I’m not going to make promises I can’t 100% keep. That also means I need to find a sustainable model where the rewards are significant enough to be meaningful but still within the range of what we can fund long-term. The final item I want to address is finding the right balance between what we want and what we can achieve, in terms of student performance. We want 100% of students to achieve mastery and we want to set these really rigorous goals, but we also want to be fair to our teachers in terms of historical comparisons and contextual data. So what it comes down to is designing a system that’s aspirational, sets high expectations for kids, motivates teachers, and is reasonable.

The below diagram depicts the KIPP Austin Career Pathway. The organization uses 3 sets of rubrics to determine how teachers will advance in the Pathway. The 3 categories it measures teachers in are: 1) Student growth and achievement (weighted at 40%), 2) Planning and instruction (weighted at 40%), and 3) Self and others (weighted at 20%). Based on performance in these 3 areas, a teacher can become a master teacher in as little as 6 years, but there’s also no guarantee of advancement simply due to the passage of time.

 This chart shows the salary scale that corresponds to each of the career stages from the Pathway. These figures only show base salaries – amounts for benefits, certifications, or stipends for other responsibilities are not included.

Thriving Schools: Let’s talk about the salary scale. What values are this schedule based on?

Emily: People want to say things like, “I was a teacher, then I got promoted to advanced teacher, and then I got promoted to distinguished teacher.” That’s what we all want in our careers. And for a lot of educators, we had really narrowed down the options to things like department chair, assistant principal, or principal – things that took them out of the classroom (even though that’s not what they really wanted). We also wanted advancement in our career pathway to be earned and based on proficiency, just like every other profession.

Thriving Schools: We also heard that you did quite a bit of research on salaries outside of the education field. How did you go about doing this?

Emily: Yes! So we were definitely thinking about what people in Austin make in other fields. For instance, we have a burgeoning tech industry here. And so, no surprise, we routinely see Google recruiting TFA corps members. As a result, our community has a gap in secondary STEM teachers. There’s obviously some places where we’re just never going to be able to compete with other industries. But, bigger picture, we did this work because we want our people to live here, to buy houses, and to have families. And the salary schedule now reflects that.

Thriving Schools: As part of the new Teacher Career Pathway, KIPP Austin decided to phase out its teacher bonus program. What was the rationale behind that move?

Emily: So we had a bonus program for a pretty long time that was based on performance. But this program wasn’t driving any sort of behavior. And we also felt that saying “KIPP Austin teachers – you earned a 4% bonus this year” just wasn’t as rewarding as calling someone an advanced teacher and backing that up with a salary that recognized it. And we weren’t using the data from the bonus program in any meaningful way. For instance, these teachers scored here and so they need this type of professional development or need to be matched with this type of manager. So again, it wasn’t really motivating people. But the Teacher Career Pathway creates a long-term change in someone’s compensation which provides a significant amount of stability. So if we give a teacher a $1,000 or $2,000 bonus, how they spend that is pretty different from receiving a step-up in base pay. Now you can make longer-term decisions about buying a house, attending grad school, or raising a family. And so a change in base salary really sends the message that this is about your career.

Thriving Schools: And what changes are you seeing in your district after the introduction of the Pathway?

Emily: I think I can say that 0% of KIPP Austin teachers are doing this for the money. Because they could clearly take their smarts elsewhere and still earn way more. But what we’ve seen as a result of implementing the Pathway is a renewed sense of focusing on student growth and achievement and improving planning and instruction in a way that is really great to see. Goal-setting is good. After all, it’s how we achieve most important things.