Politics & Policy

Teachers Matter

And so does the way we compensate them.

Education reform has made impressive strides in the last several years. Once taboo, school-choice policies in the form of charter schools and vouchers have become increasingly prevalent as the years pass, and policies holding schools accountable for student performance are now the norm. But better schools are impossible without better teachers. And the surest way to upgrade teacher quality is to tie pay to performance.

By now it is well established that teacher quality — that is, a teacher’s independent contribution to the academic improvements of her students — is the single factor within a school’s control that is most responsible for student achievement. Even so, teacher quality varies quite a bit. In their evaluation of Texas teachers, Steven Rivken, Eric Hanushek, and Thomas Kain found that a one-standard-deviation increase in the quality of a student’s teacher would have the same impact as the student being in a class with ten fewer students. A similar study found that a student whose teacher is in the top quarter of effectiveness winds up a year more academically advanced than a similar student whose teacher is in the bottom quarter. If we could either improve or remove those teachers at the bottom, the general standard of teaching, and thus learning, would rise.

Much of the variation in teacher quality is the product of our tenure system. Firing a tenured teacher who performs poorly is not exactly impossible, but the process is so difficult that it might as well be. For instance, journalist Scott Reeder found that of the 95,500 tenured teachers in Illinois, only two on average are fired each year because of poor performance.

If taxpayers are going to pay for guaranteed lifetime employment, teachers should be required to submit to a rigorous process that finally grants this privileged status only to those who are worthy of it. But as it is, nearly every teacher who sticks around for three years obtains tenure. Some school systems have taken active steps to ensure that tenure remains disconnected from performance. New York State recently voted to forbid public-school systems from considering student standardized-test scores when deciding whether to grant their teachers tenure. The result is that many teachers who fail to educate their students are protected from any pressure to improve or get out.

How we pay these lifetime employees only makes matters worse.

Instead of rewarding classroom effectiveness, public-school systems set salaries strictly on the basis of the number of years logged in the classroom and the number of credits earned toward an advanced degree. However, we know from a wide body of empirical research that, after the third year, experience stops contributing to student achievement and that earning additional credentials never does.

The inflexibility of salary schedules — their failure to recognize talent and effort, but only seniority — makes teaching less attractive to high-quality recruits. For example, economists Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh found that the compression of teacher salaries is directly responsible for a decline in the number of teachers who graduate from highly selective colleges. It also deprives administrators from registering their disapproval by halting a teacher’s wage increases.

There has been some progress toward implementing better teacher compensation systems. Recently, Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed offering teachers substantial salary increases if they would give up tenure. If Washington, D.C., and other struggling systems were able to fire their worst teachers, the general standard of their students’ performance would rise.

Several school systems have already begun linking raises to classroom effectiveness. Though we still have a great deal to learn about the effectiveness of such performance-pay policies and how to best design them, they hold great promise. In a recent review of the literature, the University of Missouri’s Michael Podgursky and Vanderbilt University’s Matthew Springer reported that this slender but growing body of research has consistently found that performance pay has positive academic effects.

Some observers favor an across-the-board increase in salaries. While one would probably attract additional numbers of promising teachers, it would also reward teachers who remain woefully ineffective. Spending that same lump sum differentially, on the basis of merit, would reward and motivate those teachers most worth keeping.

Teacher quality matters to schooling, and compensation matters to teacher quality. Ironically, by treating all teachers as if they were equally effective, the current compensation system actually produces a wide variation in teacher quality. A system that paid for performance, by contrast, would helped to establish a new and elevated pedagogical standard.

– Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.

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