Acton Commentary

Performance Pay: Excellence for All


Across America, teachers and students are back in school. But for many teachers, school did not end in May and begin again in August. These teachers spent their summers hard at work preparing classrooms and curriculum, bulletin boards and lesson plans. Indeed, these same teachers did not spend much of their summer on vacation; rather, they were busy—attending workshops and visiting teachers’ stores, always looking for that one key that may unlock learning for their students.

Other teachers, though, were not so diligent. They simply came into their classrooms on the first day of school for only the first or second time since May. These teachers are carefree and careless as they approach the school year. After all, it’s only (fill in the blank) years to retirement. After all, it’s only a job and they will get paid no matter what. The unions have seen to that.

October 5 marked World Teachers’ Day—a day thatcelebrates the unique contribution that teachers make to the world. Most importantly, that day commemoratesthe important role that teachers have in the formation of the future. However, while it is universallyrecognized that not just anyone can teach effectively, we do little the other364 days of the year to reward the many who do.

There is a difference between the two approaches toeducation cited above, yet the teachers’ unions refuse to see it. While they may continually call forimproved schools and higher standards, the unions refuse to take necessarysteps to ensure that goal. Amongthose steps is one that other industries and organizations adopted long ago:“pay for performance”.

The idea behind giving incentives for outstandingperformance is not a new one. Manybusinesses use this strategy to great effect, rewarding hard work, dedication,and excellence in their employees.Teachers should be given the same incentives for excellence anddedication. However, under thecurrent teacher compensation plans, teachers are not compensated based on theirresults, or their excellence, but rather on their seniority.

Interest in this issue is growing, according to MichaelCasserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “It’s coming up in contractafter contract. It doesn’tmean the school system is being successful in the negotiations, but it now getson the table pretty consistently.” If this is so, and if this concept has beensuccessfully implemented in other industries, the question rightfully asked is,why is it not so well received in education?

The answer is actually rather complicated. Teachers fear that low-performing urbanschools will lose out, since their students so often score much lower onstandardized tests than do student in the suburbs. Teachers worry that pay for performance will forcecompetition among teachers and thereby break down cooperation in schools.

These are serious concerns, given the moral and ethicalquestions they raise. However,these fears can be overcome.Salary increases can be linked to overall performance and improvement,rather than absolute scores. Inother words, as long as a student’s performance improves from year toyear, teachers in urban and low-performing schools will benefit as much asteachers in affluent suburban districts.

Roy Romer, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified SchoolDistrict, told the Los AngelesTimes in 2001, that the way to avoiddamaging teacher cooperation and forcing competition is to use two variables todetermine raises. First, evaluateperformance in the individual classroom; second, evaluate performance increasesfor the entire school. Romerargues that adding the second dimension will also add an incentive for older,more experienced teachers, to mentor newer teachers. Thus, not only is an individual’s raise tied to theperformance of his or her own students, but it is also linked to theperformance of the school as a whole.

Additionally, educators that choose to work in the poorerurban and rural schools deserve to be compensated for that choice. In the same way, teachers who choose tospecialize in the more difficult to fill fields of math and science should alsobe compensated accordingly. It isan accepted fact that individuals with more sought after skills are generallypaid more than those with less desired skills. If this is true in business and industry, why not ineducation?

More than this, there is a moral dimension to teachercompensation. Justice demands thatthose who do their job, and do it effectively, deserve to be rewarded. In contrast, the current system ofteacher compensation neither rewards those who are effective, nor punishesthose who are not.

It is heartening to see that the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teacher union in the United States, on its official Web site , states, “recognizing the limitations of the single salary system…(the AFT) is encouraging its locals to explore various teacher compensation systems based on local conditions.” While this is not a blanket endorsement of performance pay, the union does indicate that there are serious shortcomings in the present system.

As the teachers’ unions gearup for the state and federal elections, now just four weeks away, policyquestions come into the foreground of public awareness. These unions offer many proposals tohelp “fix” the American educational system, proposals ranging fromincreased funding of schools and programs, to modernization. While no one proposal will repairdecades of decline, pay for performance is an important first step inaddressing the systemic problems which lie at the heart of the public schoolcrisis.

A system that rewards everyone,regardless of performance, does little to provide incentives for outstandingeffort and achievement. Studentstake their cues from the adults charged with educating them, and the vastmajority of teachers take this charge seriously and discharge it out well. They recognize the correlation betweentheir performance and the performance of their students. If we want our children to strive forexcellence, can we really afford to expect less from their teachers?