Education research now makes it clear that of all the factors that schools can control, teacher quality is the most important for student achievement.[1] Efforts to reform public education within the current system of publicly financed school districts must therefore include improvements to teacher quality. As Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek and Stephen Rivkin of Amherst College write, "[A] good teacher will get a gain of 1.5 grade level equivalents while a bad teacher will get 0.5 year for a single academic year."[2] The cumulative effects of good teachers are profound. Hanushek et al. write: "[H]aving five years of good teachers in a row (1.0 standard deviation above average, or at the 85th percentile) could overcome the average seventh-grade mathematics achievement gap between lower-income kids (those on the free or reduced-price lunch program) and those from higher-income families."[3] As education policy scholar Dan Goldhaber recently summarized the research literature, "It appears that the most important thing a school can do is to provide its students with good teachers."[4]

A research consensus has also emerged that a teacher’s years of experience and advanced degrees do not generally enhance his or her ability to improve student achievement. Admittedly, there are two exceptions to this statement: Teachers do tend to become more effective over their first five years;[5] and teachers with master’s degrees in math and science content areas may produce slightly better student test results.[*],[6]

Still, the current teacher pay system in conventional Michigan school districts[†] [†] — the "single-salary schedule" — rigidly determines a teacher’s pay based solely on years of experience and work on postsecondary degrees. This structure does not generally encourage teachers to focus their efforts on raising student achievement. Instead, it encourages teachers to stay in the job year after year and to spend their summers, nights and weekends earning advanced degrees that are unlikely to make them demonstrably more effective.

Concurrently, Michigan’s education statistics indicate there is an education policy problem in Michigan. Michigan’s education spending and teacher compensation are relatively high by national standards, and total spending on primary and secondary education increased by more than 50 percent from 1988-1989 to 2004-2005.[7] Nevertheless, in recent years Michigan’s student performance in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has lost ground in national comparisons.[‡],[8]

Michigan must reverse this trend of lackluster student achievement, which now comes at an annual cost of over $19.3 billion in expenditures on public education.[§],[9] Given the cardinal importance of teachers to student achievement and the considerable sums that Michigan schools are devoting to teacher compensation, policymakers need to reconceptualize how teachers are evaluated and paid.

[*]An extensive consideration of the arguments made in the introduction of this paper can be found in Marc J. Holley, "A Teacher Quality Primer for Michigan School Officials, State Policymakers, Media and Residents" (Mackinac Center for Public Policy: 2008).

[†]We use the phrase "conventional school districts" to refer to public school districts as they are usually understood — a number of schools spread across a geographic region. The phrase excludes charter schools, which can technically be considered school districts under Michigan law.

[‡]The only potential bright spot appears to be that more and more students are becoming proficient on the tests administered by the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Unfortunately, this statistic is not particularly encouraging. Unlike the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the MEAP exams are not taken by students from all 50 states, making it harder to determine whether Michigan students’ progress on MEAP exams truly represents higher achievement or merely reflects annual differences in the exam itself. Moreover, one assessment of the MEAP tests found their standards for student achievement to be among the lowest in the nation (see Paul E. Petersen and Frederick M. Hess, "Few States Set World-Class Standards" Education Next, 8, No. 3 (2008), (accessed June 20, 2008)).

[§]For a discussion of the problems with other possible reforms, such as reducing class sizes or increasing professional development programs, see generally Marc J. Holley, A Teacher Quality Primer.