Should You Get Paid Just for Showing Up?

The following op-ed comes from the John Locke Foundation, an organization in North Carolina. While it references the situation in that state, the logic applies just aoubt anywhere, including Kansas.

Merit Pay For Teachers Makes Sense

Andy Taylor

School will soon be out for summer, but the issue of education reform will not.

Over the next few months, President Obama will roll out a number of proposals designed to improve public schools. Some of these will look like the usual reflexive effort, generated by left-leaning education “experts,” to throw money at the problem. But others, interestingly enough, are worth supporting. Obama has some encouraging ideas about expanding charter schools, for instance.

I want to focus on another idea kicked around in the White House: merit pay for teachers. This does not sound like a particularly radical idea — after all, the most activist Democratic president since LBJ is intrigued by it.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, however, has drawn a line in the sand on the issue. The union is vehemently against salary that is differentiated based upon performance. To this point, they have prevailed upon their allies in state government to protect against the policy.

Currently, with the exception of cost-of-living adjustments added by counties, teacher pay in North Carolina varies along just two dimensions. The first makes sense. Teachers are given pay increases based upon the training and education they receive — essentially getting a graduate degree or becoming certified by a national board.

Some, like economist Jacob Vigdor of Duke, are skeptical about the amount of value these experiences add, but since they are costly and voluntary the teachers who go through them are presumably more motivated and capable than their colleagues. At the very least, these experiences signal merit.

The second dimension does not make sense, however. Borrowing from Woody Allen’s maxim that “80 percent of success is showing up,” the state believes teachers should be paid for sticking around. This principle wouldn’t be so bad if longevity were earned and teachers weren’t tenured. But, largely protected from dismissal, our public school teachers generate raises by punching a clock rather than doing their job well.

Performance, therefore, isn’t incentivized much. Poor teachers slide by. They don’t serve the interests of their students or the taxpayer, and they take advantage of the good will and professional integrity of their more talented and hardworking colleagues.

They are protected by public policy and NCAE — an organization that purports to promote the interests of all teachers but that really works only for the worst.

This is particularly troubling when you consider that aside from fundamental biological, social, and economic characteristics — Is the child disabled? Is the child from a broken home? Are the childs parents unemployed? — teacher ability explains most of the variation in student accomplishment.

The research shows matters like moderate reductions in class size, the presence of an assistant, and the availability of technology have minimal effects. You have a good teacher, the students progress. Put a bad teacher into a high-tech classroom with an assistant and relatively few students, and there’s little to nothing in the way of development.

The Obama administration is going to call for small merit raises and financial incentives to get teachers to work in rural and poorer schools. Gov. Beverly Perdue has iterated this. Guilford County has its “Mission Possible” program, although, again, this is really just a one-time bonus for teachers who go to work in low-performing schools. But we can do more than this. We can reward achievement systematically.

Salary structures need to be overhauled with annual raises to base salaries given exclusively for merit. So as to have confidence we are rewarding excellence, we should gather as much data on teacher performance from as many sources as possible.

Direct classroom observation and general assessment by principals or assistant principals are critical. Parents care the most about a child’s academic progress, and their views about the teacher’s performance should be taken into consideration as well.

We now put students through a variety of tests — the “end-of-grade” for grades 3-8, prekindergarten screening, etc. The previous year’s results can be used as a benchmark against which to compare this year’s and, in turn, provide a measure of a student’s advancement and the value added by her teacher.

We already have much of this information. It can all be done with little additional effort and administrative cost.

With these reforms, performance will be rewarded. Talented individuals — or those who generally look at salary ceilings rather than floors — will no longer be discouraged from entering the profession because they can be certain of earning more in other fields. Students and parents will benefit, as will taxpayers who will receive greater return on investment. The losers? NCAE and inferior teachers, whose pay will lag that of their colleagues.

Sounds like a good deal to me.

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