Enacting Effective Merit Pay

Merit pay for teachers, proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in his budget address, would tie teacher salaries to student progress, instead of increasing salaries annually regardless of performance.

Only 3.5 percent of school districts nationwide have implemented this reform. Unfortunately, performance pay systems in many cities have been hijacked by unions, which water down reforms in order to preserve their power.

Stuart Buck and Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas explain how merit pay programs in other states have been diluted:

  • Setting the bar too low. In the 22 school districts examined that participated in Minneapolis’s performance pay program, more than 99 percent of teachers received bonus. If incentives are too small or given across the board, it undercuts the incentive’s effectiveness.
  • Not measuring student performance. Denver’s ProComp program rewards teachers more for earning a graduate degree than for exceeding the “district’s expectations” academically. Likewise, Charlotte’s program provides substantial bonuses for professional development and taking leadership roles. These are noble goals; however they don’t necessitate better academics.
  • Bad teachers aren’t penalized. Paul Teske, a principal evaluator of Denver’s program, noted “I guess your salary stays low, and maybe that sends the message that you should look at another career. But ProComp doesn’t directly address that.”

On the other hand, merit pay is more common across the globe, and the evidence is that authentic merit pay works.

A study comparing international test scores found countries with performance pay for teachers scored about 25 percent of a standard deviation higher on the International Student Assessment in math and reading, and 15 percent higher in science. This equates to students at age 15 being about 1 year ahead on reading and math and half a year ahead on science—a significant academic improvement.

Merit pay rewards good teachers, treats educators like other professionals and restores the focus of public education to student learning. Pennsylvania should join Florida, which just sent a bill to the governor that ties teacher salaries to student performance, ends tenure for new hires and enacts strong education reforms.