Public Education: Time for Change Based on the Merits

Merit-Pay cover
“A Merit-Pay Pilot Program for Michigan Public Schools,” by Marc J. Holley and Patrick J. Wright, J.D., examines a novel way to reward teachers who improve student achievement.

Politicians often talk about the importance of education, but rhetoric has never educated a single child. Children learn from teachers, which is why Michigan needs quality teachers who know their subject and are rewarded for success.

Yet our great teachers are underpaid, while the bad ones, regardless of their salary, are paid too much. This system is perverse, and it's selling our children short. We need to do something about it.

Research has demonstrated that good teachers are the linchpin in student achievement. As University of Washington education scholar Daniel Goldhaber puts it, "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 wealth or poverty 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.

If Michigan and America are going to compete on the world stage, we must prepare more of our students to world-class standards.

So the primary challenge facing schools is attracting and retaining quality teachers, while encouraging weak teachers to improve or move on. We can debate whether school choice, teacher tenure reform or more charter public schools might help, but much can be done in the meantime.

For decades, Michigan schools have paid teachers based almost exclusively on two things: years in the classroom, and college degrees and postgraduate study. Unfortunately, studies show that classroom experience and advanced coursework generally do not improve teachers' effectiveness in raising student achievement. As a result, there are far too many of our schools where nearly all of the teachers are certified and where many have master's degrees, but our children are not learning at grade level.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But sadly, as William Lowe Bryan, famed president of Indiana University in the early 1900s, once remarked, "Education is one of the few things a society is willing to pay for and not get."

It's time for our state to get what it pays for. A merit-pay program would base at least part of teachers' income on their students' achievement on standardized exams. The program could employ statistical models to ensure teachers are not penalized (or rewarded) for factors they cannot control, such as students' family incomes and backgrounds. It could also avoid the pitfall of setting artificial student pass rates that are unattainable. Tests like the Northwest Evaluation Association exams measure students' academic progress during each school year, allowing schools to define excellence through realistic goals for student improvement. The resulting goals would energize good teachers and encourage better teaching.

Merit-pay programs are being tried elsewhere, such as Chicago, Denver, Minnesota and Florida. Yet few Michigan school districts are experimenting with merit pay as a means to better compensate our great 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 an ongoing state budget battle.

But as a recent Mackinac Center policy brief suggests, many such obstacles could be circumvented by a private foundation that financed a pilot merit-pay bonus program (see with one or more cooperating school districts. This bonus program would be overlaid on the participating districts' existing compensation schedule as a means of field-testing the idea.

Change is necessary; progress is essential. Talent, creativity, knowledge and innovation will drive the 21st century. If Michigan and America are going to compete on the world stage, we must prepare more of our students to world-class standards. This can come about only by investing in quality teachers who produce educational results - and merit pay is a promising start.

(Note: An edited version of this commentary appeared in the Oct. 2, 2008, Detroit News.)


Tom Watkins is a former state superintendent of public instruction and current 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 author and the Center are properly cited.


A merit-pay program for Michigan's public schools would reward teachers based on student achievement, rather than longevity and advanced degrees.

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