Reforming Public Education: A Clarion Call For Merit-Based Pay

Daniel Doherty

1/4/2012 10:00:00 AM - Daniel Doherty

During her early professional career as a special-education teacher in the DC public school system, Tiffany Johnson didn’t know whether or not she wanted to work her entire life as an educator. Public school teachers, for example, traditionally receive low paying salaries and any increase in compensation, in many cases, is determined by seniority and academic degree. In the nation’s capital, however, the country’s most successful merit pay system is creating incentives for exceptional young teachers like Tiffany Johnson and other educators who might otherwise leave the field. The New York Times reports:

That latest 38 percent jump, unheard of in public education, came after Ms. Johnson was rated “highly effective” two years in a row under Washington’s new teacher evaluation system. Those ratings also netted her back-to-back bonuses totaling $30,000.

Lots of teachers leave the profession, but this has kept me invested to stay,” said Ms. Johnson, 29, who is a special-education teacher at the Ron H. Brown Middle School in Northeast Washington. “I know they value me.”

That is exactly the idea behind what admirers consider the nation’s most advanced merit pay system for public school teachers. This fall, the District of Columbia Public Schools gave sizable bonuses to 476 of its 3,600 educators, with 235 of them getting unusually large pay raises.

“We want to make great teachers rich,” said Jason Kamras, the district’s chief of human capital.

Until now, perhaps, bright college graduates and young professionals have increasingly grown apprehensive about pursing a career in public education. If salary increases are somewhat static and incremental, and talent is subordinated in favor of a traditional pay structure, it’s unsurprising that thousands of talented teachers leave the profession every year. It is commonly understood that most educators enter the field not because they primarily seek financial reward, but because they find meaning in what they do. Nonetheless, in Washington and several other U.S. cities, administrators are now invariably retaining good teachers by offering bonuses to individuals who demonstrate uncommon effectiveness in the classroom.

The most important role for incentives is in shaping who enters the teaching profession and who stays,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “Washington’s incentive system will attract talented teachers, and it’ll help keep the best ones.”

Under the system, known as Impact Plus, teachers rated “highly effective” earn bonuses ranging from $2,400 to $25,000. Teachers who get that rating two years in a row are eligible for a large permanent pay increase to make their salary equivalent to that of a colleague with five more years of experience and a more advanced degree.

It seems self-evident to some that the majority of public school teachers are hard-working and dedicated to their students. That said, as those skeptics and critics point out, such an innovative system is inappropriate because it creates an environment of increased competition between teachers rather than a collaborative workplace. In short, as president of the Washington Teachers Union Nathan Saunders pointedly remarked, merit-based pay “discourages people from working together.”

Overlooking the incontrovertible fact that merit-based pay is anathema to the interests of public sector unions, Saunders assertion is also much too simplistic. Teachers in the DC public school system at least have the option of choosing whether or not to participate in this system. And many, not surprisingly, choose not to take part.

Those rewards come with risk: to receive the bonuses and raises, teachers must sign away some job security provisions outlined in their union contract. About 20 percent of the teachers eligible for the raises this year and 30 percent of those eligible for bonuses turned them down rather than give up those protections.

Granted, merit-based pay is still a nascent idea and is far from becoming universally implemented. But if these reforms dissuade outstanding teachers from leaving their jobs in search of more lucrative employment opportunities, shouldn’t we welcome these reforms? Merit-based pay, in fact, seems to be a first step towards solving our education woes. More important, though, it offers an innovative way for American students to get the best instruction – from the best teachers – that public schools can offer.

And that, of course, is what truly matters.