The Monitor's View

Teacher pay at $100k?

A radical way to boost student achievement in the nation's capital deserves support.

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This fall, public schools across America are experimenting with teacher pay incentives to improve student achievement. The extra dollars, though, mostly amount to lunch money compared to a radical proposal in Washington, D.C. – upwards of $100,000 in salary and bonuses.

With Washington's middle schools the worst performing of the nation's urban districts, the city's warrior-like school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is calling for a revolution. Other cities should watch closely. Drastic nonlearning calls for drastic measures.

Studies show that a good teacher is the most effective way for a school to boost student academic progress – more than first-class textbooks, more than class size.

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Ms. Rhee believes her high-pay offer, to be funded from private foundations, can attract a higher caliber of public school teacher altogether, and weed out underperformers.

To receive the pay – which is more than twice the $47,602 average teacher salary in America – the city's teacher union must give up tenure and seniority work privileges. Tenured teachers would be on probation for one year, with their performance measured by student achievement. That's a game-changer by breaking the decades-long bargain in which taxpayers have financed mediocre pay for teachers in return for relative job security.

The vast majority of public schools have a "single salary" plan that differentiates pay on two criteria: years in the classroom and degrees held. But it turns out that seniority and degrees don't necessarily translate into higher student achievement. Could mediocre pay be producing mediocre teaching?

International comparisons hint it might. America's public schools generally attract new teachers from the bottom third of college graduates while countries with the highest student achievers attract the top third. A 2007 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. shows that high-performing countries pay beginning teachers salaries in line with the private sector.

In the 1980s, US public schools began to experiment with "merit pay" to lure and motivate better teachers. Nashville, for instance, is trying a pilot program that sweetens compensation for participating teachers by $5,000 to $15,000 based on student progress. Studies generally show a positive relation between merit pay and student achievement, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University.

But few rigorous evaluations have been done, and educators are still unsure how best to measure good teaching. They wonder about the limits of pay as a motivator – teachers often say they're not in it "for the money." And how should merit pay be targeted? To individuals? The schools as a whole?

With these questions in mind, Rhee's proposal – while something to be encouraged – needs to be viewed as an experiment.

She's been negotiating with the union for months to get buy-in. That she's making the program voluntary should ease teacher fears. A troubling unknown is what will happen to the program when private funding runs out in five years.

If this groundbreaking idea sees the light of day, Rhee should make sure she has a way to measure whether it works.

Will her mega-salaries produce mega-achievement? That's the big question other school districts will want answered.

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