Florida Senate Bill 6, which would overhaul the current teacher compensation system, has been met with a significant amount of opposition, including heated Senate debate Tuesday. • Opponents of the bill, who have responded passionately to the proposal, have every right to quarrel over its potential impacts. However, many of the claims made by fervent foes of performance pay are exaggerated and misguided. • Since 2007, we have partnered with various school district leaders and teacher groups to create productive incentive structures that appealed to both administrators and teachers. At the same time, we began meeting with makers of state and federal policy to discuss the potential of merit pay for teachers and to learn from these leaders what types of programs would be palatable politically. (We traveled to Tallahassee twice during this time to give testimony to legislative and educational leaders.) • We've worked on a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant proposal with one of Arkansas' largest districts, collaborated with another large school district to develop a plan that was supported by 98 percent of the district's teachers, and worked with charter school founders on a plan that was implemented in the charter district when the three schools opened in July 2008. • Our experience designing programs has given us exposure to the familiar concerns regarding merit pay. We address several of the common criticisms here and show that though legitimate, they are not insurmountable.
1 Performance pay discourages collaboration among teachers and forces teachers to compete. While this is a legitimate concern, it is inaccurate to suggest it is unavoidable. In the best programs, all teachers in a school are eligible for the maximum bonus based on their effectiveness, and do not compete for a limited pool of resources. Moreover, collaboration can be encouraged when a portion of a merit rating is based on grade-level achievement gains or on how much the school as a whole improves in a certain subject. In this way, the good work of one teacher improves the rating of another; thus, teachers are all working toward the same goal to maximize student achievement while maximizing their compensation.
2 Performance pay benefits only teachers of the highest-performing students. This would be true in a system focused on year-end test scores. But thoughtful programs (and the Florida legislation) focus on student growth through the year. Because low-performing students potentially have the greatest room to grow, Florida's performance pay proposal will likely encourage our best teachers to work with the neediest students.
3 What about art, music or P.E. teachers? All teachers contribute to student learning. So a good program would provide bonus opportunities to all teachers, even those who don't teach tested subjects. These teachers might be rewarded based on the academic growth of the entire school. Additionally, school leaders could and should design specific goals for teachers of these subjects to recognize their efforts.
4 All teachers are already working as hard as they can. While this is probably not true, it is also not the point. Attaching financial rewards to teacher effectiveness may encourage teachers to try different methods to be even more effective. More important, it will provide rewards and recognition to our most effective teachers and hopefully keep them in the classroom with students, where we would like them to stay!
5 Teachers don't teach for money.
Of course, no professional enters any discipline solely for money. The same goes for teachers. Many are attracted to teaching to make a positive impact on children's lives. Nonetheless, we'd bet that most teachers prefer more money to less. Even the NEA recognizes this, but suggests across-the-board raises for all teachers. Uniform raises do nothing to promote classroom excellence, so we think this money would be better spent rewarding the best and brightest teachers. As one Little Rock teacher put it, "The teachers that shine, that stand out, that are doing an excellent job — they should be rewarded."
We'd agree; let's reward teachers who are doing exceptional work, and provide them with more money to keep them in the classroom.
Dr. Gary Ritter is the director of the Office for Education Policy and a professor at the University of Arkansas. Nathan Jensen is a research associate at the OEP. Both have collaborated with Arkansas school districts on performance pay programs. They have contributed to academic research on merit pay and devised numerous merit pay plans.