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Federal Opinion

What I Want When I Teach

By Alex Klein — June 11, 2009 5 min read
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“If I do a bad job, please fire me. If I do a good job, please pay me more.”

Does that sound like something a new hire would say on his first day of work? No. But it sure does make sense.

As a rising junior in college, I still haven’t decided on a career path, but I am likely to teach for part of my life. I’ve never imagined taking a job where I am not expected to improve or take responsibility for my work, but that’s what teaching has been like for a while. Why do so many of the nation’s busiest, smartest, and most respected citizens—teachers—refuse to consider an antidote to poor instruction and haphazard learning?

Whole schools, not individual teachers, should benefit from exemplary student progress; a feeling of shared responsibility for a group goal is a more powerful motivator than going it alone.”

The idea of merit-based pay has been around for hundreds of years and has regained political traction in the last decade. Many major educational players are now supporting a compensation structure that favors growth in student achievement and leaves old pay-scale indicators like longevity and educational attainment out of the equation. In the past few years, two New York City mayors, the city’s powerful schools chancellor, and his high-profile counterpart in Washington have begun talks with teachers’ unions, but have largely failed to gain their support. And it’s not just big urban areas that are beginning to embrace this fundamental change in the way teachers are paid. So, too, are many smaller districts in dozens of states across the nation, from South Dakota to South Carolina.

Studies over the past 15 years have conclusively and consistently shown that the largest determinant for student success is teacher quality. Other variables, such as class size, school type, and amount of homework, do not have nearly the same effect. Knowing this, it seems outrageous that teachers continue to oppose progress on merit pay, a system designed to attract and retain good teachers and dispense with the bad—all for the benefit of the students.

Unions have been the main roadblocks to progress. The nation’s largest teachers’ unions have been against nearly all proposed merit-based payment structures, leaving only a few soft spots open for negotiation. These unions represent the interests of their teachers effectively. Unfortunately for America, a large number of those teachers do not understand what merit pay means and why it makes sense for them and for students.

State standardized-test scores alone can’t determine the effectiveness of a teacher, they grumble. Proponents of merit-based pay agree. Exams like the consistent and fair National Assessment of Educational Progress do a much better job than state tests in comparing student progress, and when coupled with checked-and-balanced district- or school-level human evaluations, represent a reliable and equitable approach.

Offering merit-based pay only to people who teach specific courses, like math and science, is biased and divisive, the critics contend. Superficially, one could wonder why, in some cases, different types of teachers are given different incentive structures. But a simple glance at other professions, like business, medicine, law, and even aviation, explains why some jobs require higher compensation and benefits than others: They’re more difficult, more stressful, or in higher demand.

The most insidious argument against merit pay is the pervasive attitude among teachers, expressed succinctly by a semi-anonymous New York City blogger who calls herself Pissed Off Teacher. She writes, “We don’t have super powers. … We can’t engage the sleeping student who has been awake all night listening to his parents fight. We can’t force them to come to school when they would rather go to the mall.” Well, label me Concerned Reader, because I see in her a teacher desperate for more training and help from her peers. Not understanding how to handle delinquency or get through to bored students is no reason to oppose merit pay; in fact, it’s a simple marker of a teacher in trouble—or one who’s genuinely bad.

If recent developments are any indication, a solution to this important educational issue is nearing. Union leaders such as Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, have expressed a willingness to revisit the question of merit pay, in part because of the withering economy. In a recent speech on education, President Barack Obama made good on his campaign promise—and made new enemies on the left—when he emphasized the need for a change in teacher pay systems. “It means treating teachers like the professionals they are, while also holding them more accountable,” he said.

In 2005, then-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts made a telling statement when he was arguing for merit-based pay: “I would just love it if you could just throw out all the special interests from education.” While Romney had the right issue, he had the wrong mind-set.

To advance this issue, politicians must let those special interests—specifically, unions—take responsible ownership of merit-pay discussions. Plans should not be artificially limited to a top percentage of teachers, nor should they include special local boards that distribute bonuses. Older teachers should mentor younger ones, and teacher training should be a priority. There should be an established process through which perennially bad teachers are dismissed without rancor. In fact, I would suggest paying bad teachers to leave voluntarily. Whole schools, not individual teachers, should benefit from exemplary student progress; a feeling of shared responsibility for a group goal is a more powerful motivator than going it alone. Plans should be specific about what is being rewarded and require only a dedication to teaching, however that dedication might manifest itself in teachers.

When I step into the classroom, I will tell my boss to fire me if I underperform. But I’ll also expect to get a raise if I do a great job. It is true that teachers go into the profession for the students, but they also have bills to pay and lives to live. Teachers have gotten used to blaming others for students’ failures, and we’ve let them do that for too long. I challenge school leaders to champion merit-based pay for their local teachers and for teachers everywhere—and, of course, for me.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as What I Want When I Teach

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