In the annals of public education, when a school district announces it is undertaking a compensation study, it’s time for taxpayers to lock up their wallets. That’s because compensation studies typically amount to a survey of “comparable districts.”

You find 15 or so districts which bear some resemblance to your own in terms of size and demographics, enter their salary schedule into a database, pass the wand over the top hat and utter the magic words, “We don’t want to be at the top of the chart, but we always want to be somewhere above the average,” and, voila, teachers are getting 6 percent pay hikes for the next three years.

In the circular loop of the comparable salary survey, wages always rise, regardless of a district’s ability to pay the hikes in salary, benefits, lanes, etc. If you always look in the same place, you always get the same result, and over the decades that has worked out decently well for teachers who, we would stipulate, do work that most of us could not accomplish.

But in recent months, Oak Park’s District 97 public elementary schools undertook a compensation study with a different goal. Instead of looking for districts that are doing the same things in terms of faculty compensation, D97 set out to find area districts that were innovating in how they pay teachers, how they measured progress, how they rewarded success.

Turns out the district committee — a blend of administrators, a school board member and representatives of the teachers union, the Oak Park Teachers Association — had only three alternative models to review since all other districts do things pretty much the same way D97 has for decades.

So the committee looked at Schaumburg, Evanston and Brookfield/LaGrange Park. What they found were a range of efforts, none radical, that did nothing to cut teacher salaries but instead worked at ways to reward faculty for achieving shared goals.

In Schaumburg, to achieve a merit pay component, the district does not single out individual teachers — a weird bugaboo seemingly unique to teachers — but instead rewards all faculty in a specific school building that achieves measured success.

In Brookfield/LaGrange Park District 95, annual salary hikes match CPI, and tenured teachers get small bonuses for meeting educational goals.

The timing of this compensation study is not accidental. The current teacher contract in D97 runs out one year from now. The board and administration have been plain that they will seek changes to compensation methods in the next contract as a component of efforts to improve our schools. That the OPTA was part of this review speaks well for the trust that has been built in the elementary schools among all parties.

Our teachers are great but need to be open to innovation. Our schools are good but need to be better. And change is essential.

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