On the merits of teacher merit pay

Last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two education bills that will make California more competitive for federal “Race to the Top” grants. The bills endured months of wrangling in the Legislature, and reformers remain concerned that the measures will not translate into the sweeping changes needed to improve California’s broken education system. The California Teachers’ Association opposed even the mildest reform, and especially the provisions that linked teacher evaluation to student test scores.

The Obama administration made this a priority in the RTTT scoring process. School districts and states earn the most points for creating evaluation systems that directly tie teacher evaluation and compensation to their classroom performance, as measured by test scores. The aim is to create incentives for teachers to improve their classroom performance and to reward the best teachers for their efforts.

California’s recently passed laws include provisions that encourage such evaluation. Unfortunately, they require local unions to approve district proposals — approval unlikely to be forthcoming, given the unions’ history of opposition to such measures.

Teacher unions maintain tight control of teacher compensation, promotion and dismissal. Evaluating teachers based on concrete standards like student test scores would undermine that control. Teachers typically get paid based on a union-negotiated system of seniority that does little to reward actual classroom performance. The seniority system creates disincentives for young, motivated entrants who know that their efforts and successes in the classroom will not be rewarded.

Unions say they oppose teacher evaluation based on test scores for a different set of reasons. According to the California Teachers’ Association web site, the union objects to defining effective teaching on the basis of student test scores because it “is a flawed process that has never been shown to improve teaching practices or student outcomes.” This claim flies in the face of recent research by Hebrew University economist Victor Lavy.

Lavy used new data from a test program in Israel that rewarded teachers based on student performance on high school matriculation exams. In a recent article in the American Economic Review, Lavy shows that such “merit pay” programs are extremely effective. The experiment rewarded with cash bonuses those teachers who had students improve the most on the exams.

Such research affirms the common-sense understanding that teachers, like most people, will respond positively to incentives.

Merit pay is not the only solution, but it is an important part of any plan to attract and retain highly qualified teachers. Seniority pay and tightly controlled union contracts only serve those who seek to serve themselves.

Rachel Chaney is a senior fellow in education studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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