Legislators seeking accountability for large outlays of state tax dollars could reasonably justify requiring districts to spend this money in ways that are most likely to deliver quality education services to Michigan students. For example, the best evidence indicates that seniority-based and degree-based pay systems for teachers do not promote higher quality instruction nor greater student achievement. Yet schools overwhelmingly tend to pay their teachers based strictly on length of service and the number of degrees they hold.[*] Policymakers could require districts to use a pay system that promotes and rewards excellent teaching.
Proponents of these types of reforms correctly recognize that human resources are crucial to making the enterprise of education succeed and particularly the effectiveness of teachers. Personnel expenses comprise, on average, 82% of school budgets, 57% of which is dedicated to compensating instructional personnel like teachers. More often than not, directing extra money to K-12 education means hiring additional staff or paying staff members more across the board. Given that the common compensation structure schools use are inefficient, the amount of resources needed to attract and retain enough effective educators to raise achievement at scale could be prohibitively expensive.
Michigan’s relatively modest attempts to improve the overall level of teaching have a poor track record, such as revamping teacher evaluations and requiring pay be based on performance. While the language authorizing those reforms remains in statute, districts have largely ignored these reforms and the Michigan Department of Education has made little effort to enforce them. For instance, many district administrators have refused to differentiate effectiveness among their teaching staff and offered only token payments that reward performance.
District officials, university researchers and reform-minded legislators appear to share concerns that the state’s efforts to improve educator evaluations have not worked well. For one thing, local schools consistently rate nearly 99% of teachers as “effective” or “highly effective,” making it difficult to identify and replace ineffective teachers. Similarly, the 2010 law that mandates districts use performance as a significant factor to determine educator compensation is essentially a dead letter. The idea that great teaching should be financially rewarded and incentivized is a sound one, but most districts flout the law and maintain their seniority-based pay scales without consequences.
State leaders have been largely unsuccessful in implementing policies that elevate teacher professionalism and break the factory mold. Improvements are also stymied by top-down accountability that is widely dispersed and weakly enforced. Attempted sanctions on conventional school districts for persistently poor performance have amounted to little more than empty threats. State lawmakers are more inclined to assign districts extra money when they fail to deliver results for students than they are to give those students access to effective alternatives. As such, funds are disproportionately used to maintain the status quo rather than expand the delivery of effective educational outcomes or experiment with new methods or models, no matter how promising they may be.
The jury is still out on the state education department’s Partnership Model, an initiative launched in 2017 to turn around struggling local school systems and help them avoid harsher sanctions. But the results have not been very encouraging. Specific interventions have varied based on local response and need, but commonly include establishing clear, consistent academic goals, adopting new curricula, emphasizing greater expectations for student attendance and building better relationships with parents, and providing extra coaching and mentoring for younger teachers. The first two years of the state’s Partnership Model registered some initial gains for younger students in some areas, but less evidence that any of these improvements could be sustained.[†]
Generally speaking, school officials are rewarded more for complying with outside agency rules and adopting union-favored policies than for embracing promising initiatives that might directly benefit students. The state’s Partnership Model program seeks to transform some facets of compliance into cooperation, supporting school leaders who make necessary reforms. Even so, state intervention has mostly yielded modest changes in practice and modest results in return.
Most Michigan districts are not subject to partnership arrangements. They feel even less pressure to rethink business as usual. On the whole, school officials face no financial incentive to improve. Some might use extra money to do a better job improving student achievement, but trying to mandate improvements though state regulations and financial support has largely proven ineffective. The failure to produce change is impacted by the inertia of traditional practices and habits, resistance from labor organizations and a lack of will from state bureaucrats. Thus, top-down reforms, no matter how promising or grounded in good evidence, often fail to produce widespread improvements in teaching and learning.
[*] A long track record of research identifies no consistent relationship between a teacher attaining a master’s degree and student performance. See Marguerite Roza and Raegan T. Miller, “Separation of Degrees: State-by-State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master’s Degrees” (Center on Reinventing Public Education, July 2009), https://perma.cc/3456-FYFT. Researchers identified billions of K-12 dollars spent annually on these “master’s bumps.” More recent research confirms a positive effect for a master’s degree in mathematics on middle and high school math instruction, but no such effect for most degrees, including some that have a slight negative effect on teaching quality. See Kevin C. Bastian, "A Degree Above? The Value-Added Estimates and Evaluation Ratings of Teachers with a Graduate Degree" (Education Finance and Policy, Fall 2019) vol. 14, no. 4: 652-678, https://perma.cc/DC3Z-329F. Regarding seniority, a recent study not only affirms findings that the average teacher improves rapidly in their first four years and more modestly up to year 10, but also identifies wide variation in trend lines, such that more effective teachers tend to continue improving longer. This implies that paying teachers based on seniority matters little to the overall effectiveness of a school’s ability to teach children. See Matthew A. Kraft, John P. Papay and Olivia L. Chi, "Teacher Skill Development: Evidence from Performance Ratings by Principals" (EdWorkingPaper, Annenburg Institute for School Reform at Brown University): 19-97, https://perma.cc/5CZC-4582.
[†] Katharine O. Strunk et al., “Partnership Turnaround: Year Two Report” (Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, Oct. 2020), https://perma.cc/77SZ-QZCW. As of fiscal year 2021, the state annually kicked in about $6 million from the school aid budget to underwrite the program. See also “School Aid Section-by-Section Highlights- Boilerplate Only, Fiscal Year 2020-21” (Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, July 14, 2021), https://perma.cc/Y35J-KSDP.