Disincentive pay for teachers

By Larry Sand
October 10, 2017

The way we pay our teachers is outmoded and needs to go the way of the horse-and-buggy.

When I first began to substitute teach in Los Angeles in 1985, I learned about “incentive pay.” If a sub was willing to go to “schools in need,” he could earn about 40 percent more than a regular sub. Rather impecunious at the time, I jumped at the opportunity. And the incentive, also known as “combat pay,” is still in force, but it’s only available for subs.

The rest of the teachers in Los Angeles – and most of the country – still hang with the industry-style, highly unprofessional way of compensation: ye olde step-and-column method whereby teachers, no matter how talented they may be, are paid by their number of years on the job. They can also increase their salaries by taking “professional development” classes, despite conclusive research by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek and others showing that these classes have zero effect on student learning.

When teacher salary schedules first came to be about 100 years ago, they were designed to eliminate discrimination due to race, ethnicity and gender. With such discrimination illegal today, there is no need for them, but the vestigial practice is still a teacher union imperative.

We now have a new report issued by the Brookings Institution that shows the detrimental effects of the step-and-column pay regimen. Co-author Michael Hansen told Education Week that salary schedules are resistant to paying teachers differently for working in hard-to-staff schools. Yet teachers of color often work in these settings, he said. “So perhaps if we actually paid them for working in high-needs schools, implicitly that is a bonus that disproportionately benefits minority teachers and would disproportionately increase their income.”

Beyond benefiting minority teachers, incentive pay would lure more talented teachers of any ethnicity to schools that are hard to staff. Additionally, with a less rigid salary regimen, a district that is short on math or science teachers could pay them more as a way to lure them into the field.

The Brookings report also delves into the unfairness of teacher pension systems. Today, Hansen says, young people are more mobile “in terms of both geography and occupational choice. A teacher of 10 years who moves with a spouse to another state could lose significant pension wealth, and would have been better off had the district instead contributed to a 401(k) on her behalf.” Hence, funding for an incentive program could come from monies now used for budget-busting defined benefit pension plans that only benefit lifer-teachers.

Merit pay, incentive pay’s first cousin, also provides positive results. A meta-analysis done by researchers at Vanderbilt shows that pay-for-performance works. The most promising models they found are incentive pay programs employing a group incentive design which “produce an effect over two times the average study in our sample…which lends support to the shared nature of teaching and learning hypothesis.”

According to the study’s author, Matthew Springer, “The group incentive-pay system may encourage teachers to collaborate more, and so teachers end up learning new instructional practices or new ways to approach the curriculum. As a result, they become better teachers.” The study shows that merit pay translates to four additional weeks of learning per school year.

The benefits of performance pay will come as no surprise to the teachers unions’ worst nightmare, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who instituted Act 10 in 2011. Also known as the Budget Repair bill, the law provided sweeping changes in collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave for public sector employees.

Earlier this year, Stanford University economics researcher Barbara Biasi released the results of a study which found that Act 10 created a marketplace for teachers in which public-school districts compete for better employees. For instance, a district can pay more to recruit and retain “high-value added teachers – that is, those who most improve student learning. Districts can also cap salaries of low-performing teachers, which might encourage them to quit or leave for other districts.”

Among Biasi’s findings is that there is a “34 percent increase in the quality of teachers moving from salary-schedule to individual-salary districts, and a 17 percent decrease in the quality of teachers exiting individual-salary districts.”

The lesson from all this is that incentives matter in education, just as they do in every other aspect of life. The sooner we eliminate the antediluvian, quality-blind method of paying teachers, the teaching profession will improve considerably, and students will be the prime beneficiaries.

As for the reactionary teachers unions and their school board cronies – modernity awaits.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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