Milwaukee Public Schools: Is Merit Pay the Answer?

Yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had an article on the concept of merit pay for teachers. The idea has been floated many times, but not tried very often. Teachers are against it for the most part. Wouldn’t you be? Why give up your $100,000 compensation package in return for having to earn your pay and benefits?

The way things have been for years, the teacher’s union protects the teachers, especially the bad ones. It doesn’t matter how lazy or incompetent a teacher may be once he or she has tenure. There is almost no way to get rid of them. And their reward for being a bad teacher? $100k per year while they’re pretending to work, and retirement at the ripe old age of 55 with a fat pension and health care plan. (When’s the last time you saw a bad private sector employee keep their job, continue to get high pay, and then get early retirement financed fully by someone else?)

The concept of merit pay is actually fantastic, and it’s what most of our country uses. If you perform, you get to keep your job and you get paid more. If you don’t perform, you make less or are most likely out of a job.

So could this work in schools?

The most common argument that I hear against merit pay is “we can’t control the children, so we shouldn’t be responsible for the outcome.”  They cite urban problems (lack of parenting, poverty, crime, lack of supervision, etc.) as reasons why the children can’t succeed, so the teachers shouldn’t be held responsible.

But isn’t every job dependent on the actions of another? A salesperson can’t force anyone to buy a product. Yet his pay is determined according to how much he sells. If he isn’t selling enough, maybe he needs to change his sales methods. Even the simplest jobs are dependent on others. If you clean hotel rooms for a living, your ability to earn money doing that will be directly related to how many rooms are rented out for the night, even though you have no control over that.

Teaching is no different than any other profession in that those doing the job ought to be held responsible for the outcomes.

MPS has received a federal grant of $7.6 million (yes, this is taxpayer money!) for a merit pay program, but no details have been released. One way to evaluate performance is through improvement in student test scores. The critics say this causes teachers to “teach to the test.” However, I don’t know how to evaluate whether students are learning if we don’t test them.

In Pittsburgh, they’re already using a merit pay system for teachers, using tax money (which are being called grants) and money donated by the Gates Foundation. The newspaper article cited the following items in the system:

  • Basing teacher pay on multiple measures: student test scores, a school’s overall success meeting yearly benchmarks for educational progress set by the federal government, and teacher performance evaluations.
  • A stronger teacher evaluation system, which deploys teams of teachers and administrators in daylong visits to schools every two weeks to analyze teacher performance.
  • A requirement that new teachers participate in the performance pay system, though it remains voluntary for veteran teachers.
  • A two-tier pay system. Under the new contract – which passed by a wide margin – every teacher in the system will get a raise. Teachers will be eligible for tenure after four years instead of three.
  • Teachers can earn additional pay by assuming various leadership roles within their schools, such as serving on the Promise Readiness Corps or teacher-leadership cabinets that meet weekly to craft school policy.

I don’t know if pay for performance will work, but something has to be done. The teachers in MPS are largely failing. (Yes, I know there are some good teachers, but mostly the district is failing!) Something different has to be done. Certainly anything we try can’t be worse than what’s already happening???

If you’re interested in how wasteful Milwaukee Public Schools is with taxpayer money, take a look at this article I wrote. The district spends an average of $490,000 per classroom per school year. See what $490,000 could buy if it was spent wisely.

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