Source: Author's tally based on performance pay Web sites.
Not a single school in Michigan
was awarded any of the $94 million available through federal Teacher Incentive
Fund grants when the final winners were announced earlier this month. Of course, that’s not surprising since you cannot win a federal grant competition when you barely even apply.
Of the 143 applications submitted,
only four came from Michigan, a state with 552 school districts and more than
200 charter public schools. If the federal government and private foundations
nationwide are funding merit pay programs with millions of dollars, why don’t
the unions in Michigan want their teachers to get a piece of the action?
Under the system defended by unions, an excellent teacher, whose students demonstrate significant learning gains, earns the same amount as the teacher who clocks in and then checks out.
The intent of the TIF program is
to encourage school districts to adopt alternative teacher compensation plans
that base teacher pay, in part, on student achievement. This federal program,
which will result in thousands of teachers earning significant performance-pay
bonuses, is just one such initiative being undertaken across the country.
However, in Michigan only three
districts have begun to adopt any form of merit pay. Nonetheless, perhaps the
system in Michigan is fine just the way it is — students are learning and
teachers are getting paid in the manner they deserve. Then again, maybe not.
Michigan teacher salaries are
among the highest in the nation. Unfortunately, union policies have not produced commensurate levels of student achievement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average teacher in Michigan earned approximately $57,000 during 2006, compared to the national average teacher salary of approximately $50,000. The average wage of Michigan teachers also dramatically outpaces the average per capita income of $34,000 in the state.
On the other hand, on comparative
measures of student achievement, Michigan students routinely rank in the middle
of the pack. Certainly, it would seem that taxpayers and legislators would want
a greater bang for their educational buck.
One major problem is
that the current teacher compensation system has the wrong incentives. In
Michigan, nearly all teachers are paid according to the single salary schedule.
This compensation method rewards teachers for experience and level of degree. If a teacher earns a masters degree, she gets a significant pay bump. If she stays in the job for another year, she gets yet another raise. Despite the research that shows that teacher seniority after the first five years does little to impact student achievement, individual teachers still get their raises year after year. As for extra degrees, no research definitively links increased credentials to higher student performance either.
Teacher unions have designed a
system to protect the weakest teachers, not to promote student achievement. As
long as a teacher doesn’t do anything egregious, the checks keep coming and the
teacher unions get their cut. The only real accountability measure in the state
is the competition that school choice provides, and, wouldn’t you guess, the
unions want to do away with that too.
Research suggests that of all the
factors that can impact student achievement in schools, teacher quality matters
most. Although it is true that teachers do more than merely teach students how
to read, write and do arithmetic, students should be able to demonstrate the
academic progress they make during the 180-day school year on standardized
Measuring a teacher by his
students’ academic performance is an accurate way to determine, to some degree,
the quality of his work. Under the system defended by unions, an excellent
teacher, whose students demonstrate significant learning gains, earns the same
amount as the teacher who clocks in and then checks out. Therefore, there is
little incentive for teachers to go that extra mile.
If Michigan would like to see
teacher quality improve, policymakers need to take a long, hard look at the way
teachers are compensated. Local school districts should do everything within
their legal powers to link teacher pay to performance. They can begin by
following and expanding upon the examples of Michigan districts that have
already instituted this policy.
Across the nation, progressive
districts are undertaking merit pay plans to motivate their teachers to innovate
and work harder. Even though teachers do not choose the education profession for
the money, they, like most people, respond to incentives. When a portion of
their wages is attached to student performance, the incentives change. Although
teachers can earn higher salaries for performing better under a merit pay
system, students will be the ones who truly win.
Marc Holley is a doctoral fellow at the
University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform and an adjunct fellow
with 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 author and the Center are properly cited.