Introduce merit pay to the school system

Commentary, Education, Peter Holle

The winds of change are beginning to buffet public education in Canada. In Alberta, charter schools receive operating funding from government, but are free to run their own affairs absent the dead hand of bureaucracy. The Harris government in Ontario is considering school vouchers. Several provinces, understanding that performance measurement is good public policy, are returning to standardized testing to measure student achievement. The next step is to reward effective teachers with merit pay.

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 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. And so on.

What about teachers? One might expect teachers’ pay would be based on their effectiveness. 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 extracurricular 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 extracurricular activities than B. It doesn’t even matter that A might have more training in his or her 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 quick to argue that the grid is the most equitable way to determine pay. They will point out that it is 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 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 Eugenia Berger and Mark 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 scores on scholastic aptitude tests than students taught by teachers who had less.

If there is little correlation between these two variables and student performance, why is teachers’ pay completely determined by them? Teachers’ codes of ethics typically state that a member’s first professional responsibility is to his or her 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 (and often self-serving) grid system. 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 extracurricular activities.

Interestingly, this 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 the general public supports the idea. Implementing it would also benefit progressive school divisions by attracting and keeping the best teachers.

The time has come for merit pay. We have an opportunity for Canada to become an educational leader rather than a follower.