Give the Best Teachers More Money

November 8, 2010

For release noon Nov. 9 and thereafter (665 words)

The best teachers deserve more pay. Who could argue with that simple proposition? Well, get ready. The teachers union and defenders of status quo are gearing up to block this key element of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ education reform agenda.

They will trot out every excuse to maintain the current system, which rewards credentials and seniority but not results obtained by the professional in the classroom.

As an educator myself, and one who considers teaching to be challenging and exhausting work, I find their arguments specious.

“Teacher performance is impossible to measure.” It’s not only possible, but principals are doing it now. How? By observing the teacher in the classroom on a weekly if not daily basis, surveying students and parents and measuring student progress. ISTEP scores are one way to gauge English and math; in other subjects, teachers could give pre-assessments before units are taught and post-assessments at the conclusion. A gym teacher could be rewarded if students improved their time running the mile, for example, or for getting more students to pass the President’s Challenge Physical Fitness Test.

“It’s not right to hold teachers responsible for problems children bring to school.” No one expects children in high poverty districts to post test scores identical to peers in affluent suburbs. Merit pay formulas base bonuses on gains made by students over time. Moving a class from the 20th to 40th percentile is worth more than moving a class from the 80th to 90th percentile.

“Merit pay will pit teachers against each other.” This claim wouldn’t fly in any other occupation. Do scientists at Eli Lilly refuse to collaborate in the development of life saving drugs because they don’t all get the same raises?

Administrators will use merit pay to reward their friends.” This risk exists in every profession, but it’s less likely when a performance system contains objective measures such as test score gains.

“All teachers are underpaid so it would be smarter to pay all teachers more.” Teachers aren’t underpaid compared with peers in comparable developed countries. According to 2009 data adjusted for purchasing power, the average public primary school teacher with 15 years experience and minimum training earns $43,633 in the United States, compared with an average of $39,007 in 33 developed countries including England, Spain, Belgium and Finland.

“There’s no connection between merit pay and student achievement.” In this case, the naysayers will point to a recent study from Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corp. that found no notable test score gains by students in Nashville, Tenn., whose teachers were offered performance bonuses.

Studies can be found on both sides of this argument. In July 2010, economist Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich authored the first cross-country econometric study on teacher performance pay. He concluded:

“Students in countries that adjust teacher salaries for outstanding performance in teaching perform about 25 percent of a standard deviation higher on the international math test than students in countries without teacher performance pay, after controlling extensively for student, school, and country measures. Similar associations are found for reading achievement.”

Here’s the point: The purpose of merit pay for teachers is not to boost student achievement. It’s to reward excellent teachers and change the professional environment in a way that will attract the best and brightest.

“This is a fact: Smart, ambitious people are rarely choosing K-12 teaching as a career these days.” Forrest Hinton, research associate for the Education Sector think tank, reached that conclusion by looking at SAT scores of high school seniors intending to major in education compared to those entering other professions.

Merit pay won’t make a bad teacher effective. It is a small step toward restoring teaching as a prestigious profession, as it is in South Korea, Finland and Singapore. All three countries draw their teachers from the top 30 percent of high school graduates. All three outperform us on standardized tests.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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