Merit Pay For Teachers

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Most people are used to the idea of merit pay. If you’re good at your job, you’ll likely prosper; if not, you won’t go very far. Doctors won’t remain doctors if they don’t treat patients properly. Assembly-line workers get raises if they’re productive, miss them if they aren’t.

What about teachers? One might expect teachers’ pay would be based on their effectiveness. After all, why should poor teachers be paid the same as superior ones? We could be forgiven for assuming teachers receive higher pay if they have higher performance evaluations or if their students show noticeable improvement in reading and math skills. And it would be reasonable to assume that teachers who help out with extra-curricular activities get paid more than teachers who don’t.

In fact, none of the different levels of merit or service mentioned above exerts any influence on a teacher’s salary.

Instead, two things determine teachers’ remuneration: years of university education and years of teaching experience. Placing these two factors on a grid will tell you what any particular teacher gets paid. Thus Teacher A, who has four years of university education (or Class IV) and two years of experience, would always be paid less than Teacher B, who has five years of university education and three years experience.

It doesn’t matter that A might teach more effectively than B. Nor does it matter that A might be involved in many more extra-curricular activities than B. It doesn’t even matter that A might have more training in a subject area because the grid registers years of university education rather than the relevant content of the courses taken. Teacher B is higher on the grid, and that’s that.

Teachers’ unions are very quick to argue that using the current grid is the most fair and equitable way to determine pay. They will point out that it is very difficult to evaluate teachers fairly and that this grid eliminates any element of subjectivity. Moreover, they will say, teachers with more education and more experience are probably better teachers than those with less.

The actual research does not support these arguments. In 1986, University of Rochester economics professor Eric Hanushek conducted an exhaustive review of 147 studies that evaluated the relationship between the performance of students and their teachers’ years of university education. Only 10% of these found any correlation at all, and of those half showed a negative correlation.

In 1994, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Measurement reported the results of a study by academics Mark Berger and Eugenia Toma. It compared test scores of students in states where teachers were required to have a master’s degree with those in states where teachers needed a four-year bachelor’s degree. Surprisingly, students in states where teachers had more university education had lower SAT scores than students taught by teachers who had less.

Hanushek has also evaluated 109 studies that explored the relationship between teacher experience and student performance. Only one-third of them found that student performance improved under more experienced teachers. While this is a stronger correlation than years of university education, it is still weak.

If there is little correlation between these two variables and student performance, why is teachers’ pay completely determined by them? The Manitoba Teachers Society’s Code of Ethics states that a member’s first professional responsibility is to the students. If this is so, why should we continue to base remuneration upon a grid that does not measure teaching effectiveness?

Fortunately, not every school division in North America is chained to this static, self-serving grid system. Some U.S. school divisions have implemented some form of merit pay for teachers. Cincinnati Public School District is planning to abolish the grid and replace it with a merit-pay system. Principals and other administrators will evaluate teachers, and their salary levels will depend on their effectiveness. They will also receive pay for extra-curricular activities.

Interestingly, Cincinnati’s merit-pay plan has the full support of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. Public school teacher and union representative Jeff Bixby was quoted by the Cincinnati Enquirer as saying, “But we as a union helped create this, and this shows that we aren’t just there to protect people who can’t do the job.”

Merit pay ensures that only teachers who perform well receive regular increases. Polls indicate that the general public supports the idea. Implementing it here would also help ensure that Manitoba school divisions could keep our best teachers within the province.

Clearly, the time has come for merit pay. We have an opportunity to become an educational leader rather than a follower.