Time to rethink teacher pay

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 Washington, D.C., public schools.

These plans are a useful start. But while they are routinely attacked by teachers unions as radical, they do not 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 that was 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 they 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 receive high marks from them) or boosting pay for terrific classroom teachers who choose to take on larger student loads (while continuing to excel) gives schools more bang for their bucks.

Unfortunately, in Washington and 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.

After all, we pay thoracic surgeons much more than we do pediatric nurses — not because we think they are 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 is a far cry from today’s ill-conceived proposals to slather some test-based bonuses atop existing pay scales.

Frederick M. Hess is the 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.”


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