Yes to Merit Pay for Teachers

A Michigan teacher makes her case for introducing merit pay into her profession.
Published on January 1, 2005

First, we have to ask a few questions. For example:

Do we really want to bring about educational reform in Michigan, or do we just want to talk about it?

If the answer is yes, then it is time to sit down and do what teachers have been telling their students to do for eons: put on that thinking cap.

What is the single most important element in education? If you are thinking about buildings, budgets, textbooks, boards of education, parents or even students, you better pull that cap down a little tighter … because you are forgetting the formative years you spent in the classroom. The correct answer, Johnny, is the Teacher, and that is spelled with a capital “T”.

Teachers form the backbone of education in any society under any conditions. Our job as guardians of the young is to find some way to encourage able teachers to keep on doing those things that bring about classroom success, and we must discourage unsuccessful teaching performance.

The current system rewards teachers for accumulating educational credits and degrees and time on the job. In short, we pay teachers not so much for teaching but for displaying the outward accoutrements of education — in other words, for showing up. In order to attract higher wages, the teacher is asked to apply time and valuable energy not to the education of students but to the re-education and indoctrination of themselves.

This saps energy. De-energized teachers lack the time and strength for class preparation and lack the energy to cope with the myriad problems presented by a classroom filled with average students.

In spite of these problems, school administrators try to provide an environment for quality education. Most of the time, it is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. After a while, everyone can see it is the same rabbit and even the same hat, both looking a little worse for wear after so much thwarted effort. Pep talks, team teaching concepts, evaluations, assessment testing, and more are trotted out from time to time. Classroom results, however, have not changed.

The surest way to reinvigorate Michigan’s education system is not a secret — not to managers of modern businesses and not to the educators in the nine states that already have adopted some form of merit pay for teachers.

A merit pay system should be based on an evaluation system that is made up of frequent, meaningful evaluations. These should focus on improvement and growth, and promote introspection and continual improvement of the teacher.

Research on merit pay programs in Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas found a correlation between school-based award programs and student performance. In these programs, teachers valued monetary bonuses, but they also thought that the $1,000 a year bonus was insufficient. Private sector research has shown that in order to affect a worker’s motivation, annual bonuses should be at least 5 to 8 percent of salary, or about $2,000 for the average teacher.

“We know good teachers make a difference,” said John Forsyth of Des Moines-based Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, who volunteered his time to help the state build a new system. The state of Ohio put up some $40 million for wage increases, with the stipulation that it must go to better-performing teachers. The old system, one that rewarded teachers just for showing up, was replaced with a skill-based system that allows teachers to reach higher pay levels years earlier than allowed by the old system.

In Denver, the teachers’ union is working closely with school officials to develop a merit system tied to test scores. In Ladue, Mo., near St. Louis, the school district links pay to performance. The district has seen a drastic decline in its teacher turnover rate (and lower turnover rates have been linked to higher student performance), and teachers there say the system has made them better teachers.

Merit pay is an idea that is finding its place in America. It is coming like some swift messenger carried on the winds of change, and Michigan’s educational leaders would do well to avoid the appearance of obstructionism.

Recent experiments in Cincinnati’s public school system were so successful that a ten-school pilot study was expanded to the entire system and adopted by the teachers’ union in 2000. Yet, despite its success, the teachers union decided to end the program. Cincinnati Federation of Teachers President Rick Beck, who championed the performance pay plan, was ousted in the next election, and the plan was ultimately voted down by more than 96 percent of the union membership.

Some teachers do not enter the teaching profession for the money, but for the true desire to help others through teaching. Granted, others join for job stability. Teaching offers tenure, a solid middle-class income, and plenty of vacation time. Teachers may not enter the profession to become rich, but they certainly do not plan a life of financial frustration in the company of unmotivated but equally paid teachers.

Hard working, high quality teachers will thrive under a merit-pay system, while the teachers who don’t strive for continual improvement will find other jobs. Money is not just a means of supporting families but is a measurement of who and what we are. By providing this simple method of motivating our teachers, we can move them toward their full potential — and in the process begin a whole new era of education, one in which it will once again be fun to teach.

And guess who the real winners are going to be? Our kids.

Cynthia Mahar is a teacher at the Saginaw (Michigan) Arts and Sciences Academy in Saginaw, a public magnet school. This was published originally by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an independent think tank based in Midland, Michigan. For more information see

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