Linda Chavez

An employee who works harder than his colleagues, produces more and generally excels at his job should be paid more than one who is mediocre, or worse, a downright failure, right? Most employers reward good workers with promotions, bonuses and higher pay in order to keep them. But in the one profession you'd think that excellence should be rewarded -- namely, teaching -- it's often difficult to do so.

Teachers unions have been the main obstacle to paying teachers based on their performance, but change may be on the horizon. It's been a long time coming.

This week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached an agreement with Randi Weingarten, president of the nation's largest local teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which will allow the city to recognize that some teachers are worth more than others -- well, sort of.

The plan, which took months of negotiations to finalize, will provide bonuses for good performance as measured by improvement in students' test scores at the city's poorest schools. The hitch is, the money won't go directly to teachers whose students improved dramatically but to schools to be divvied up by compensation committees, which could choose to give it only to the best teachers or divide it evenly among the staff.

The idea for merit pay for teachers is an old one. President Ronald Reagan actually campaigned on the issue in his 1984 re-election bid, following the release of a dramatic report on the decline in educational performance in the U.S., "A Nation at Risk." Al Shanker, who was also the longtime president of the UFT and the American Federation of Teachers, was the first national union leader to signal a willingness to consider the idea.

In his excellent new biography -- "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy" -- Richard Kahlenberg notes that Shanker took the first steps toward union acceptance of merit pay more than two decades ago. At a union conference in 1985, Shanker told members, "Most people in this country believe hard work and better work ought to be rewarded, and opposing this makes us look like we are not interested in quality. So we ought to think about ways of handling [merit pay] while avoiding the pitfalls."

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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