Of all the reforms that could be made within the government school system, changing the structure of teacher pay has the biggest potential to dramatically improve the system. (Vouchers have even more potential to improve government schools, as their track record consistently shows. But that’s reform from outside the system, not inside it.)
There’s a strong consensus in the empirical research that teacher quality makes a huge difference. And it’s pretty generally conceded — even among left-leaning education wonks, although not, obviously, by the teachers’ unions — that our current teacher workforce is pretty low in quality. Our society recruits teachers decidedly from the lower end of the academic spectrum (see here for the gory details, if you can stand them.)
Why does the system attract low-performing teachers and repel high-performing ones? It’s primarily because the teacher salary system is designed to ensure this result.
Teacher pay is based almost entirely on two factors: years of experience and the possession of teaching certificates and credentials. A large body of empirical evidence establishes that neither of these has much relationship to actual teacher quality.
Teacher pay bears no effective connection to teacher performance. Meanwhile, in all the other professions, high performers are paid better and low performers are paid worse.
Think about what that means for people who are deciding whether to become teachers. Those who would make great teachers will consistently be paid better in any other profession besides teaching, while those who would make bad teachers will consistently be paid better as teachers than in any other profession.
Obviously some high performers go into teaching anyway. But they’re small in terms of percentages. The financial incentive can’t help but reduce the quality of the labor pool.
Defenders of the status quo have tried to argue that it was the expansion of opportunities for women in other professions that drove down teacher quality. And that makes a plausible story. However, it doesn’t seem to square with the facts. A Harvard economist ran the numbers historically for the past half-century or so, and found that the decline in teacher quality didn’t track with the rise of opportunities for women in other professions. It did, however, track closely with the unionization of the teaching profession — which is another way of saying that it tracked with the imposition of the current pay system.
There are few issues more important than teacher quality, and there is no serious way of improving teacher quality very much until we deal with the pay system. It’s that simple.
Unfortunately, the unions have managed to block serious experiments with merit pay. In the few cases where something called “merit pay” gets through the political wringer, it’s loaded down with so many compromises that it doesn’t amount to real reform. That’s why we don’t have much empirical evidence on how merit pay affects teaching.
And I’m afraid Rhee’s proposal is falling afoul of the same problem. Most important, her proposed system would be voluntary — and of course the teachers who really need to be subject to it won’t sign up. The removal of tenure protections won’t make much difference in a voluntary program; the teachers who need to get fired aren’t going to volunteer. And the removal of the seniority-based pay system will have a limited effect if it’s only applied to teachers who choose it.
Nonetheless, the proposal is still a significant break from the status quo. For all its limitations, it wouldn’t be merely a “symbolic” program — if Rhee wins her struggle with the unions, D.C. will have one of the most serious experiments in merit pay ever attempted. Yet the symbolic power of showing that the unions can be beaten on this issue might well be the single most major impact the program would have.