Public Schools Can't Afford to Turn Down Teacher Merit Pay

| by Brian Crosby

Better quality teachers are the best chance any child has in a classroom. Just ask President Barack Obama when he said this week that “the most important factor in [a child’s] success is . . . the person standing at the front of the classroom.”

When President Obama made this remark in his speech on education, teachers across America felt a collective sense of relief. After years of former presidents claiming to be THE education president, it appears that this country might actually have one.

Who would have thought we would have a Democratic president advocating merit pay?

Remember how President Reagan was severely criticized for proposing the same thing a quarter of a century ago?

An outstanding teacher who motivates children to learn and be curious about life deserves $100,000 or more. There are a few districts that do pay teachers six figures, but usually that’s only the very top salary after decades of experience and specialization.

All the principal playmakers in the game of educating children play by some common rules, and rule number one has been around since the invention of the pencil. That rule says that you cannot distinguish one teacher from the next nor should you. All teachers get paid the same. All teachers get treated the same. Why does a teacher who engages students, gets them thinking, and makes them look forward to attending class paid the exact same amount of money as another teacher who couldn’t care less about the students, mumbles incoherently all day long, and races past the students for the exits at 3:00?

Quality is not acknowledged, applauded, spotlighted nor rewarded. Such a system deters many bright people from ever entering the teaching profession.

Should the best teachers earn six-figure salaries? Yes.

Should all teachers be paid six-figure salaries? No.

A few forward-thinking school districts in Denver and Houston have implemented performance-pay systems, often overriding union’s objections. The concept may sound familiar. Pay people for how well they do their job. How innovative is that?

By paying teachers a qualitative salary, i.e., a salary based on how well they teach, public schools can begin to have a major mindshift towards rewarding quality. Maybe they can even use it in promotional slogans such as “quality your child can trust.”

One study found that when teachers get paid according to their performance, their students’ performances increase. In other words, money does motivate people to work harder.

The President is going to have a fight on his hands in trying to get the National Education Association to endorse merit pay, a concept most teachers unions vehemently oppose.
Here are the union arguments against performance pay:

“It is unhealthy for teachers to compete with one another.” Well, it is unhealthy for good teachers to continue not being acknowledged and applauded for the terrific work they do.

“It is impossible to quantify good teaching.” No it’s not. I can take someone off the street and show them a classroom with an effective teacher and one with an ineffective teacher. That stranger could easily distinguish the difference.

“It allows management to play favorites.” Management already plays favorites with teachers’ schedules and other things. As long as human beings are in charge, subjectivity will play a role. However, there is less of a chance of a single administrator playing games if teachers were evaluated by a panel of master teachers and administrators from different schools.

The big question that needs answering when it comes to paying teachers more is “where is the money going to come from?”

Let’s say ten percent of the three million teachers in America are worth $100,000 or more, and that such compensation would in effect double their current salaries of $50,000. Multiply 300,000 times $50,000 and that equals $15 billion. Remember, the annual education bill is $500 billion so $15 more billion is not so outrageous. Still, the money is already there by lowering the top salaries of veteran teachers who do little but show up and collect paychecks.

How outrageous that we expect our children to get a first-rate, Bloomingdale’s-like education but pay teachers Wal-Mart-like salaries.

This must change. You can’t expect topnotch K-12 instruction without paying for it. As President Obama said, “The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.” Nothing less than our country’s economic future is at stake.