Frederick M. Hess: Time to really rethink teacher pay

The same thing over and over: How today's reformers get stuck in yesterday's ideas
Wednesday: Solve school problems, but don't oversell
Thursday: Time to really rethink teacher pay
Friday: For schools, one size does not fit all

Part two of a three-part series.

Teacher quality has risen to the top of the education agenda. Plans to evaluate teachers based on student performance and offer merit pay for teachers have gained attention, and been adopted in District of Columbia Public Schools.

These plans are a useful start. But, while they are routinely attacked by teachers unions as radical, they don't go nearly far enough.

So long as we take the shape and scope of today's teaching job as given, dramatic improvement in teacher quality is going to prove a frustrating pursuit. Today's teaching profession is the product of a mid-20th-century labor model.

It relied on a captive pool of female labor who were pretty much barred from other employment options. Schools thought educators to be largely interchangeable.

Teaching has clung to these industrial rhythms even as the larger labor market has shifted underfoot.

Teacher benefits and pay look like they do because schools adopted state-of-the-art management practices 50 or 75 years ago. Schools adopted salary ladders that rewarded continuous service, strong guarantees of job security, and defined-benefit pension plans that reflected those pursued by powerful industrial unions.

These measures worked well enough in the 1950s, but are a poor fit for today's America. Firms that used those old systems have fallen by the wayside or struggled to remake themselves — schools, however, hold fast to these museum piece arrangements.

Well-designed merit pay systems award teachers not only for doing a terrific job but also take care to do so in a way that extends their effect on students and schools. Rewarding prized mentors who choose to mentor more colleagues (while continuing to get high marks from them) or boosting pay for terrific classroom teachers who choose to take on larger student loads (while continuing to excel) lets schools get more bang for the buck.

Unfortunately, in DCPS, as across the nation, merit pay is doing nothing to boost the productivity of effective teachers.

Even today's merit pay proposals, with their emphasis on student achievement gains and classroom evaluations of teachers, do nothing to support new opportunities for different kinds of teaching roles made possible by new technologies and staffing models. These merit pay systems say nothing about what to do with an online tutor who is a remarkably effective foreign language teacher or what to do about teachers who share responsibilities for student instruction.

Today, school systems casually operate on the implicit assumption that most teachers will be similarly adept at everything. In a routine day, a fourth-grade teacher who is a terrific English language arts instructor might teach reading to just 24 students for just 90 minutes and spend five hours teaching everything else — while a lousy reading teacher down the hall teaches another 24 kids reading for 90 minutes. This is simply irresponsible management — and pay should be spent accordingly. </span>

After all, we pay thoracic surgeons much more than we do pediatric nurses — not because we think they're better people or because they have lower patient mortality rates, but because their positions require more sophisticated skills and more intensive training and because surgeons are harder to replace.

By allowing pay to reflect perceived value, law and medicine have made it possible for accomplished attorneys or doctors to earn outsized compensation without ever moving into administration or management. That kind of a model in education would permit truly revolutionary rethinking in how we recruit, retain and deploy effective educators.

That's a far cry from today's ill-conceived proposals to slather some test-based bonuses atop existing pay scales.

Frederick M. Hess (rhess@aei.org) is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas.”

Frederick M. Hess (rhess@aei.org) is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas” (Harvard).

Beltway ConfidentialOp Edsop-edOpinion

Just Posted

A large crack winds its way up a sidewalk along China Basin Street in Mission Bay on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco’s sinking sidewalks: Is climate change to blame?

‘In the last couple months, it’s been a noticeable change’

For years, Facebook employees have identified serious harms and proposed potential fixes. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg have rejected the remedies, causing whisteblowers to multiple. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Facebook’s problems at the top: Social media giant is not listening to whistleblowers

Whistleblowers multiply, but Zuckerberg and Sandberg don’t heed their warnings

Maria Jimenez swabs her 7-year-old daughter Glendy Perez for a COVID-19 test at Canal Alliance in San Rafael on Sept. 25. (Penni Gladstone/CalMatters)
Rapid COVID-19 tests in short supply in California

‘The U.S. gets a D- when it comes to testing’

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led a late-game comeback against the Packers, but San Francisco lost, 30-28, on a late field goal. (Courtesy of San Francisco 49ers)
The Packers beat the Niners in a heartbreaker: Don’t panic

San Francisco is no better and no worse than you thought they were.

A new ruling will thwart the growth of solar installation companies like Luminalt, which was founded in an Outer Sunset garage and is majority woman owned. (Philip Cheung, New York Times)
A threat to California’s solar future and diverse employment pathways

A new ruling creates barriers to entering the clean energy workforce

Most Read