PET: Rewarding Proficient Teachers with Financial Incentives Will Improve Education

Op-Ed from the Professional Educators of Tennessee; December 11, 2012:

Is Teacher Merit Pay on the Way in Tennessee?

By J.C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

In the immediate future, teacher compensation systems will likely be redirected from an input-driven system to an outcome-based system. Unlike the general labor force, where output is a key salary determinant, the field of education rewards experience and advanced degrees. That is not always bad.

We believe financially rewarding educators for their expertise and their excellence will attract and retain the best and brightest to the teaching profession. However, Professional Educators of Tennessee opposes the use of student test scores as the primary measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, as the determining factor for a teacher’s compensation or as the primary rationale for an adverse employment action.

Treating teachers like professionals means rewarding excellence, encouraging the competent to improve, and easing the inept out of the classroom and into some other line of work. For the teachers unions there are no bad teachers, or excellent ones for that matter, there is only adequate. Unions insist upon treating teachers like assembly-line workers who are largely interchangeable, rather than as professionals engaged in a challenging craft. Any meaningful improvement of public education will require that at some point we treat teachers as professionals again, and that will inevitably run into resistance from teachers unions.

Traditionally, it has been argued that blanket increases in teacher salaries would achieve an improved education system. They contend higher teacher salaries across-the-board would compensate for the increased responsibilities shouldered by teachers; bestow the proper respect on the teaching profession; and attract well-prepared candidates to the field. Many have argued that teacher salaries have not been competitive within the job market and, therefore, the profession has not attracted the “best and brightest.”

President Barack Obama has made feelings on the issue clear: Not only is he in favor of paying teachers for their performance, but states that implement policies toward that goal have been rewarded financially. Tying teacher compensation to student growth was one of the key components of the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program. States that passed new laws creating incentive programs for teachers were rewarded with millions in federal grants. The teachers union in Tennessee readily embraced Race to the Top.

Others have challenged that view, questioning the wisdom of providing a blanket increase in compensation without a way to determine returns. If competitive teacher salaries are important, they argue, then an accountable and competitive environment should be part of the package: Market principles must be applied. Concerned about attracting better-qualified teachers and justifying salary increases in the face of falling test scores, some proposals have gone beyond across-the-board pay increases.

We know that in Race to the Top funding and the likely legislative debates in 2013 that Merit Pay/Pay for Performance will be an issue raised by policymakers. Race to the Top encompasses several items, but in general:

  • Superior teachers should earn more than average teachers;
  • Poorly performing teachers should be expeditiously removed from the school system;
  • Across-the-board pay hikes should be resisted and/or discontinued;
  • Teachers performing more difficult tasks should receive higher pay.

Rewarding teachers for their performance has been discussed in education for decades but has been a particularly heated issue of late. PET believes that teachers should be rewarded for a variety of reasons, including rewarding teachers experience and advanced degrees. PET opposes incentive or performance pay programs, unless they are designed in an equitable and fair manner. PET supports a career compensation and benefits package for all certified, licensed and contracted public school employees that mandates competitive salaries that are equal to or greater than the national average and competitive with private industry.

The state should still include a minimum salary schedule that provides for step increases to recognize longevity in the profession. PET supports the creation of a statewide set of evaluation standards for campus administrators that includes a survey of classroom educators and staff regarding the professional performance of the campus administrators.

In addition to experience and degrees, expect to see salary increases targeted at performance (merit), market, equity, or retention. General financial parameters and guidelines should be established each year as part of the budget development process at the state and local level. In addition, below are a few additional talking points on the subject:

  • Merit salary increases may be composed of many differing components, but two components – a base salary percentage increase (specified in budget) and a percentage increase in recognition of above satisfactory (or exceptional) performance. This will be mostly tied to increases in student achievement/performance.
  • Adjustments to salaries may also be made when there is an issue resulting from market or other equity factors
  • Equity factors exist from internal pay disparities and are not related to individual performance
  • Retention bonus should occur in hard to fill positions like foreign language, special education and higher level math and science.

From a labor union perspective merit pay might perhaps lessen their collective influence. They believe if salaries were not strictly based on years of experience and number of college credits earned or additional services provided, the teaching force at any workplace would be more stratified (differentiated) and much less willing to stand together during a conflict with school site management or during a contract struggle. The role of the union would be seriously compromised. That in of itself seems to indicate a motivation that legislative leaders may find appealing. Make no mistake pay-for-performance or merit pay will be on the legislative agenda in 2013.