Teacher Quality and Merit Pay

February 7, 2007

The debates over teacher pay are heating up again. Jay Greene and Marcus Winters recently published a paper arguing that teachers make more than many people assume.

When considering teacher pay, policymakers should be aware that public school teachers, on average, are paid 36% more per-hour than the average white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty and technical worker.

I have always found the teacher pay debate fairly silly from where I sit. Does anybody seriously dispute that the compensation levels for teachers impacts the overall quality of those who enter the profession? I’ve known something was odd about this issue since the time a fellow law professor told me that K-12 teachers were overpaid. This fellow made more than K-12 teachers, taught less, and had virtually total control over the hours in his day.

But if anyone needs evidence that how much money we pay teachers has an influence on who enters the profession, and how long they stay, just go to any law school today. At Georgetown Law School I teach 8-10 students a year who are former TFAers and loved teaching. But they came to law school because as soon as they graduate, they could get jobs making 3-4x their teaching salary.

Fortunately, some more complex questions about the relationship between pay and teacher quality are being raised today. The Center for American Progress has recently published a couple of papers on this topic, including one that was released yesterday, Teacher Compensation in Charter and Public Schools, by Julie Kowal, Emily Hassel and Bryan Hassel. (The other recent paper from CAP is Teacher Pay Reforms: The Political Implications of Recent Research, by Dan Goldhaber).

I attended the panel presentation for the release of the Kowal/Hassel paper, and found the paper to be a useful primer on how some charter schools are trying to use teacher pay as a way to improve recruitment and retention, and motivate current teachers. Aspire Schools, for example, bases teacher pay raises on 3 criteria: 1/3 principal evaluation, 1/3 parental satisfaction survey results, and 1/3 school-wide academic performance. Fellow panelist Emily Lawson reported that D.C. Prep, which she founded, uses a complex model developed by the Teacher Advancement Program.

Lawson also pointed out, quite correctly, that it is extremely hard to put a high-quality system of merit pay into practice. (And she also made clear that it was expensive, even if we only consider the extra time and personnel required to make fair and appropriate decisions about who should get what raise). In my work at the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, I have struggled over these questions of implementation. Value-added evaluations are the only way to go, but they are not easy to do. And it gets yet more challenging for teachers and school staff who are not in math and english, the subjects most commonly tested.

Other interesting ideas floated in the Kowal/Hassel paper involved non-financial rewards which schools used to compensate and motivate teachers. KIPP gives teachers a travel certificate after four years of service “to let them go sit on a beach somewhere and rest,” High Tech High gives them a $2,000 debit card at the start of the year to purchase instructional materials, and Aspire Schools helps pay the student loans for its new teachers who enter the profession with student loan debt.

Good ideas, all. But the discussion of merit pay and other ways to modify the traditional salary scale leave one central question unanswered. Is merit pay the most effective way for a school or a school district to spend resources in pursuit of recruiting, motivating, and retaining effective teachers?

The theory behind merit pay is that it will promote student achievement by producing better teachers and teaching in the classroom. And as a matter of common sense, that seems right. But there are other things that schools and districts can also do to recruit, motivate and retain teachers that also seem promising, as a matter of common sense. For example, many young teachers feel alone and lost, and as I have discussed before, some believe the answer is improved professional development and mentoring programs.

Other teachers say that student mis-behavior makes teaching challenging and sometimes demoralizing, so perhaps smaller classes and additional school staff devoted to climate and behavior would make teaching more attractive. Lawson, for her part, suggested that although she is implementing merit pay at her school, she would rank merit pay as less important to recruiting and retaining teachers than creating an effective learning climate.

The essential question is whether, against the alternatives, investing additional resources in merit pay offers the biggest bang for the buck? Amazingly, it appears nobody really knows. Hassel said as much at the panel. More depressingly, the panel admitted that the current experiments with merit pay are not likely to yield reliable research results that will tell us how merit pay compares to other reforms in effectiveness.

The AFT’s Nancy Van Meter made an important point as well: merit pay tied to a principal evaluation (which most schemes are) only works to the extent that every school as a fair and qualified principal, trained to make these judgments. All the panelists agreed this was currently lacking in many of our schools.

I arrived at the panel in favor of trying to come up with good approaches to merit pay, including pay raises that are tied to individual and school-wide student achievement gains. And I’m still there. But those who would tinker must be candid about the fact that we are just making educated guesses. We really don’t know that this change will have a greater influence on teacher quality than would some other potential reforms.

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6 Responses to “Teacher Quality and Merit Pay”


  1. […] 10th, 2007 Last week I posted this comment after attending a Center for American Progress panel on teacher compensation practices. One of the […]

  2. James Says:

    Bryan Hassel, one of the authors of the paper I discussed in the post, has this response to my comments:

    Very well said! We really appreciated your questions at the panel, agree they’re really important and, yet, largely unanswerable at this point. As I said on the panel, the argument for some investment here is the potential of pay reform to change how 70+% of school dollars are spent, dollars which now do little to advance teaching effectiveness.

    That said, redirecting those dollars is only worth doing if it yields better teaching. There’s little direct evidence that it will, but there’s indirect evidence of a couple of sorts. One, there’s strong evidence that pay compression in the teaching profession has led to a decline in the number of high-aptitude people becoming teachers. Coupled with evidence that college aptitude is strongly correlated with teaching effectiveness, this info suggests there would be payoff from changing the shape of compensation. Two, there’s good research outside of education that says well-designed performance pay plans do boost performance. Well-designed meaning things like basing performance pay on measures that are legit and valid.

    So, I’m not quite willing to say “we know nothing,” though I agree we don’t know as much as we need to. Which gets to your follow-up question at the panel re: how will we know, which is another tough one. It’s easy for us to say “do evaluations,” but getting useful conclusive data on this stuff is tough, as you know.

  3. jtimmerman Says:

    I think we are coming at this from the wrong angle. Part of the problem is recruiting and retaining good teachers. The other problem is what to do with bad teachers. I don’t mean mediocre teachers, I mean bad teachers. Because of the influence of the teachers’s unions really bad teachers are retained and shuffled around when there are high quality teachers out there who can’t earn tenure because spots are filled by poor teachers. If you really want to have merit pay, then you have to have non-merit discouragment or something of the like.


  4. I teach algebra at a continuation high school in California. I’d rather have better teaching conditions, including a smaller class, than merit pay. I see 150 at-risk students each day. My students have a multitude of problems, from teen pregnancy to drug addiction. I also have several special ed. students. I’m already doing my best to teach these kids. Giving me merit pay isn’t going to make a difference in my performance. Smaller classes and an appropriate curriculum which includes vocational training would be a better use of funds. When students are motivated to learn, teachers are motivated to teach. Give the students relevant classes, and they’ll do better


  5. […] Forman Jr.’s blog Extra Credit has a lengthy think piece on the topic of merit pay. Worth the […]


  6. […] 30th, 2007 I’ve said that I’m drawn to the idea of merit pay, but the details seem really hard to get right, as […]


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