Merit Pay Would Reward Teachers Who Really Teach

The Free Press    January 10, 2008

Is your New Year's resolution to find a new job? How about one that pays, on average, more than $75,000 per year, gives you two fully-paid months off during the summer, provides complete benefits and union protections, and guarantees raises without ever considering the results of your work? Teach in the Quakertown Community School District.

You get generous automatic annual increases. The controversial late-night contract that the board signed two years ago gives many teachers an average annual raise of 6.29 percent, about double the cost of living! Then there is an easy-to-achieve 1.25 percent district-wide bonus if enough students score "proficient" on their PSSA's, making the raise 7.54 percent. The old contract averaged only 4.82 percent. (Support staff has surely taken notice as they bargain for their new contract.)

And, you can make far more if you meet three criteria: First, stick with the job - salaries grow based on years of service. Second, accumulate credits toward a Masters Degree in Education, or a PhD. To make this even easier, the school district pays for it. And, finally, actually receive those advanced degrees. Incredibly, students' results are irrelevant. Only the 1.25 percent district-wide bonus is based on performance at the job you are hired to do - educating the kids! All other increases are structured on what teachers do for themselves. In fact, getting that PhD can increase your original salary by almost 50 percent!!!

Of course, we can't blame the teachers for the system. The great majority of them are devoted to their profession, and their students. They are simply benefitting from our school board's outdated policy of rewarding education for teachers, not education by teachers. Many other districts so the same. The underlying assumption is that teachers who take more classes will automatically be better teachers. Does it make sense to you?

Consider the hypothetical situation with two teachers instructing the same subject, and same grade. The first dedicates full time and effort to preparing interesting lesson plans, and gives daily after-school individual attention to every student to make sure they absorb everything required to perform well on the PSSA's and SAT's. The pupils, and their parents, love this teacher, because he makes learning fun, and motivates the kids to succeed. But he only has the bachelor's degree.

A second teacher devotes himself to his graduate studies. He is uninspired and uninspiring, and rarely available for extra help. Students generally dislike him, and his course. But he gets his masters and PhD. Guess which teacher will earn at least $20,000 more per year. Then, imagine the same scenario with other professionals, like doctors or lawyers: What do you look for - the number of graduate courses they took, or the results in the courtroom or operating room? Even the burger-flipper at McDonald's is evaluated on how well he gets his job done, not the framed diplomas on his wall.

Superintendent Dr. Lisa Andrejko maintains that the 1.25 percent bonus makes QCSD a pioneer. "It (a performance bonus) is common for administrators, but I do not know of any other school district in PA that has it for teachers. When I attend regional and statewide meetings, colleagues are amazed that we have a financial incentive in lieu of an automatic increase." But the bonus is not "in lieu of an automatic increase". It is in addition.

This concept of paying teachers based solely on longevity, and graduate school credits, used to be the national standard. No longer. According to The New York Times, "For years, the unionized teaching profession opposed few ideas more vehemently than merit pay, but those objections appear to be eroding as school districts in dozens of states experiment with plans that compensate teachers partly based on classroom performance." Last year, New York City officials, and the teachers union, agreed on a merit pay system in which high-performing teachers can earn extra money, and even retire five years earlier with full pension benefits.

The Times reported "Merit pay is likely to get a major lift with its adoption in the nation's largest school system. New York's plan is a twist on the traditional concept of merit pay. Pots of money will not be distributed teacher by teacher, but be given to schools that do a good job raising students' test scores. It will be up to 'compensation committees' at each school, made up of teachers and principal supervisors, to divvy up the money as they see fit. They could choose to distribute it evenly among union members or single out high performers." In QCSD there is no differentiation about who receives the bonus - it's either everyone, or no one. "Bad" teachers get the same as "good" ones. Individual merit is not considered.

Denver's nationally-acclaimed ProComp model for performance-based pay is based on several factors, including evaluated performance, professional development efforts, and student achievement. In 2003, the Florida legislature enacted the Better Educated Students and Teachers (BEST) program to establish a teacher compensation model based on prescribed performance criteria, and not on length of service (though unions fought it). Iowa schools award bonuses to teams of teachers. Arizona voters actually authorized a sales tax increase to generate funds for increasing teachers' base salaries and performance pay. And Kentucky passed a state law mandating that teachers receive raises or bonuses based on performance evaluations, additional duties, and training.

Utilizing some form of merit pay here could be a win-win for everyone, but it would involve the cooperation of the board, administration, teachers, and the community. QCSD directors actually had some discussions a few months ago. But even though student achievement and progress data is readily available, the board's slow-to-change majority refused to even consider it. This why-change-the-status-quo? attitude is the same as we heard when Integrated Math was questioned. In virtually every other profession, those who perform best are rewarded most. Can't we ask the same for our teachers? If QCSD aspires to be a "great" district, we need to be at the front, not the rear, of educational progress.