The Merit Pay Debate

By Mitchell, Russ | Chief Executive (U.S.), April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Merit Pay Debate


Mitchell, Russ, Chief Executive (U.S.)


Merit pay? No way. That's the stance taken by teachers' unions against linking performance and pay. Through strength in numbers and political organization, combined with the public's general fondness for teachers, the unions have long prevailed.

But this year could be different. A ballot initiative backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is all but certain to go to California voters by November. The measure would establish merit pay in the state's constitution and ban seniority as a consideration in teacher employment decisions, including hiring, firing, transfers and pay. In addition, the initiative would extend from two to five the number of years required for a teacher to qualify for tenure.

For the hundreds of thousands of unionized teachers in California, the stakes are enormous. Schwarzenegger has openly stated his intention to leverage his personal popularity to push the ballot initiative and break what he sees as a stranglehold by state employee unions over the legislature.

Union leaders promise to drop a heavy hammer on the governor's merit-pay plan. "The governor will have his money, and education will have its money," says John Ferez, until recently head of the United Teachers Los Angeles union. "The entire education community is going to oppose him. The governor will find that voting against teachers and against kids is not popular."

The governor's once sky-high popularity has taken a steep dive, his overall approval rating dropping from 65 percent to 55 since last fall, according to the Field Poll. Still, support for the meritpay initiative was recently polling at a strong 60 percent.

Both the governor and state Education Secretary Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor, are racing around the state pushing hard for the merit pay plan. In an interview, Riordan repeated his observation that teaching is the only profession in which pay is completely disconnected from job performance. "If I ran a restaurant," he says, "and I decided to pay everyone the same, every waiter, every cook, no matter what kind of job they do, and I'm not ever going to fire anybody -well, I'm going to go bankrupt."

The unions offer plenty of reasons why pay based on merit won't work. Competition among teachers would make for tension in the schools and have detrimental effects on the students, they say. Performance reviews would be arbitrary, principals would play favorites, and without more money merit pay is a zerosum game, where even average teachers would fall behind as districts struggle to pay high achievers more. Furthermore, they say, no one has proven that merit pay makes for better teachers.

Almost everyone agrees on one thing: California public schools are among the worst in the nation. Average scores in reading and math on national assessment tests from 1990 to 2003 put California 48th out of 50 states, ahead of only Louisiana and Mississippi. Meantime, per-pupil K-12 spending in California totaled $7,692 in 2003-2004, 25th highest in the country, though factoring in the state's high cost of living pushes the figure comparatively lower.

How would teachers be judged under the California scheme? The amendment's language requires both employee evaluations and evidence of improvements in student academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Further details, including how to weigh the two factors, are left to the local school boards. The unions are opposed to "subjective" supervisory evaluations and to tying a teacher's pay to student test scores.

The school boards don't have many models to guide them. Merit pay plans in states such as Texas and Tennessee flopped, partly because the plans involved paying teachers more money, an idea that didn't survive state budget crises.

There are a few promising merit pay examples. The Milken Family Foundation, based in Santa Monica, has sponsored experiments in merit pay around the country, including in Arizona and South Carolina. …

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