Soundings

Nicole Gelinas
Cheating Great Teachers
It’s past time for merit pay for Gotham’s public school teachers.
Summer 2005

Student test scores rose in New York City this year—and in some classrooms and schools, kids made truly significant gains. Consider Region Five, a poor district of eastern Brooklyn and Queens. As Julia Levy reported in the New York Sun, the district was an “educational wasteland for decades,” with two-thirds of students failing at everything. But this year, the district’s elementary- and middle-school students pulled off testing gains of 17 percentage points in English and ten percentage points in math, outpacing the city’s average gains in both areas. At P.S. and I.S. 41 in the district, 48 percent of fifth-graders met reading standards this year, up from 32 percent last year, while 37 percent of the seventh-graders did okay or well this year, more than double last year’s figure.

It’s no mystery why scores are going up: a gifted, determined manager who motivated teachers to succeed. The district’s leader, Kathleen Cashin, established clear expectations for principals and teachers, and pushed the schools in the district to meet them. P.S./I.S. 41 principal Myron Rock enthuses that his teachers worked evenings, Saturdays, and vacations to push students.

The teachers must be glowing with pride from the praise they’ve garnered. But they won’t see more money for their feat, unless every New York public school teacher also sees it. In mid-June, the United Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten, released its latest pay demands, and rewarding the best teachers is no part of them. Instead, the union wants a 19 percent pay hike across the board, raising top salaries to nearly $100,000 within three years. Partial funding for this hefty raise would come from the new billions in city school money the union expects from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement—money that may (and should) never materialize.

But without the introduction of merit-based pay, new money won’t do much to build upon this year’s rising scores, as a recent study, conducted by Harvard economics prof Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh of the National Bureau of Economic Research, makes clear. The study examined worker aptitude (native smarts, basically) as it related to worker pay. In most professions, the best workers usually get the top pay—a situation that once held in teaching, before the unions arrived on the scene and began to mandate lockstep salaries. Hoxby and Leigh found that smart women (the study looked only at females), frustrated by the absence of reward for ability in the public schools, have looked elsewhere for more rewarding career paths, as you’d expect.

Forty years ago, as unions were just gaining control in public schools, Hoxby and Leigh report, 16 percent of American female teachers were of low aptitude in relation to other college grads (determined by mean SAT scores at their respective universities). By 2000, 36 percent of women teachers were of low aptitude. In 1963, 5 percent of women teachers came from the highest-aptitude group; by 2000, that figure had plummeted to 1 percent. The main reason for this startling decline in teacher quality, Hoxby and Leigh conclude, is the elimination of financial rewards for talent. Back in 1963, the smartest teachers earned more than average teachers, while the lowest-aptitude teachers earned less; by 2000, all teachers earned about the same for the same level of experience, regardless of talent.

If New York wants to attract and keep the best teachers, then, the solution isn’t to increase teacher pay across the board. That might draw more people to teaching, but not necessarily smarter or harder-working people. Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein should instead seek to structure financial incentives to reward teachers like those who did so well at P.S. 41.

Klein already backs school-based merit pay for teachers—that is, if a school improves, he wants every teacher there to receive a financial reward. But for merit pay to work best, Hoxby explains, it should offer bonuses or raises based on individual teacher performance. Otherwise, she asks: “What happens if you’re a great teacher in a school with problems?” Answer: the best teachers will just leave bad schools for good ones, perpetuating a race to the bottom in the worst schools.

If he could get the teachers to cooperate, Klein might take his proposal at least a step further, and award schools bonus pools that would vary from year to year based on each school’s individual performance. The principals could then distribute the bonuses among teachers at the schools, based on test-score improvements in individual classrooms as well as on more qualitative evaluations of individual teachers. Teachers would have an incentive to work together in a school to get the whole school to do well but would also be encouraged to excel in their own classrooms.

But the UFT remains hostile to any merit pay for individual teachers. Striking a Marxoid note a while back, Weingarten declared that merit-pay plans “pit teachers against each other instead of encouraging a collaborative school culture.” What Weingarten and the union don’t see—as the rest of America fervently believes—is that competition is healthy: in a merit-pay system, for instance, a teacher who could be effective but who has lost any incentive to improve under the existing system might see her colleague down the hall try, succeed, and get rewarded—and want to emulate that colleague. Until Weingarten budges, though, virtue will have to be its own reward for New York’s teachers.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: