In 2009, the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) utilized a $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement a comprehensive new K-12 education program.
The program, known as Pittsburgh’s New Teacher Improvement System, included a merit pay component, whereby teachers are retained and receive pay raises based on their performance in the classroom. This alternative approach to teacher compensation was part of an effort by the school district to attract and retain the best teachers and improve the quality of education children receive.
Unfortunately, PPS and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers recently decided to rescind its performance-based pay system. The latter group is strongly opposed to the pay-for-performance program, claiming the evaluation system on which it was based was unfair, inconsistent, and ineffective. Instead, the union reached a deal with PPS that would not only reinstate the original pay-scale but also grant more generous raises based on seniority.
The deal also limited the number of involuntary teacher reassignments to thirty-five per year—causing concerns the school district will be unable to position teachers where they are most needed.
The rejection of performance-based pay is disappointing considering research indicating better teachers are attracted to school districts with pay-for-performance systems. According to the Brookings Institute, school districts with pay-for-performance experience an influx of new teachers with SAT scores that are an average of thirty points higher than districts without performance pay.
Brookings also pointed to a study that found offering performance bonuses “would induce roughly an 11 percent increase in the number of top-third students becoming teachers.”
A Vanderbilt report also demonstrates merit pay’s positive impact on students. The report included a meta-analysis of 44 studies. Overall, the authors found merit pay led to “a modest, but statistically significant, positive effect on student test scores.” The academic increase equates to adding about three additional weeks of learning to the school year.
However, the report also notes that the structure and implementation of merit pay programs matter. This insight illustrates why we need educational choice. Just like education is not one-size-fits-all for children, no single contract—or performance pay system—fits all teachers.
Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such—not as interchangeable pieces on an assembly line. If more parents were empowered with Education Savings Accounts to choose the educational path that best fits their children, more teachers could be uniquely rewarded for their performance.