President’s Merit Pay Idea Merits Attention

(Editor's note: This Op-Ed originally appeared March 23, 2009, in the Detroit Free Press.)

We applaud President Barack Obama's recent announcement that he still favors merit pay for public school teachers who boost student achievement. This is not the first time he has broached the subject — mentioning it at last summer's National Education Association annual meeting drew a round of boos — but it is heartening that he has not abandoned support for the idea simply because one of his key constituencies disagrees. The president realizes merit pay for teachers is a necessary change.

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In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama said good teachers "will be rewarded" with more money for student achievement. He was very clear in stating that teachers who fail to improve their students' performance should not be rewarded and protected.

The concept behind merit pay for educators is a simple one: good teachers should be paid more, mediocre teachers should be given a chance to improve, and underperforming teachers should find a new line of work.

The research on teacher merit pay is compelling. University of Washington education scholar Daniel Goldhaber says, "It appears that the most important thing a school can do is to provide its students with good teachers." This is true regardless of the economic demographics of the community. Stanford University's Eric Hanushek and Amherst College's Stephen Rivkin have found that low-income minority students can gain 1.5 grade levels in a single academic year with the most effective teachers, but as little as 0.5 grade levels with the least effective.

For decades teachers have been paid based on longevity and college degrees. Studies, however, show that years on the job and advanced degrees have little or no effect on student performance. Our schools are full of long-serving, certified teachers where children are not learning at grade level.

Opponents of merit pay — usually teachers unions — argue that teachers should not be held accountable for issues that affect student performance over which they have no control, namely students' home lives. But improved statistical modeling allows this and other tricky variables to be measured.

Critics of merit pay also say teachers should not be held accountable for the performance of a student's previous teachers. Tests like those from the Northwest Evaluation Association, however, measure students' academic progress within each school year, allowing schools to track student performance while with the same teacher. Those teachers that help improve student achievement would be rewarded, in turn encouraging better teaching.

Merit-pay programs can and have succeeded. They're being tried in Chicago, Denver, Minnesota and Florida. Yet few Michigan school districts have embraced merit pay as a means to reward the best teachers. A major reason is politics. Instituting merit pay would require changing the pay schedules in local union contracts or creating a state-funded merit-pay program amid ongoing state budget difficulties.

In his speech, President Obama specifically mentioned that he'd support merit pay in 150 "additional" districts nationwide. If we want all students to achieve, however, such a monumental program should not be limited to a certain number of districts, and it should be as free of federal strings and conditions as possible.

The president is correct, we must move beyond a system that puts power, control, politics and adults ahead of teaching, learning and children.

Everyone wants our young people to succeed in the 21st century and compete on the world stage. For that to happen, teachers will be critical; they are positioned to foster talent, inspire creativity and disseminate knowledge in our students. Those who meet that challenge should be compensated for it. Rhetoric has never educated a single child — but highly qualified teachers do.


Tom Watkins is a former state superintendent of public instruction and is currently president and chief executive officer of TDW and Associates, a global education and business consulting firm. Patrick J. Wright is senior legal analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and the Center are properly cited.

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