Why Merit Pay Matters

Opinions here are my own and not those of the NYC Department of Education, where I serve as Deputy Chancellor.

It will surprise no one who either has children or once was one that the most important variable in improving student outcomes is the quality of the teacher. The difference a great teacher makes is especially significant for those from economically disadvantaged homes. Indeed, studies suggest that the achievement gap could be closed in a matter of years if such students were fortunate enough to be taught by “top quartile” teachers (as measured by their track record of success).

To improve teacher quality, we essentially have four levers: Recruitment, Retention, Professional Development, and Dismissal. Over the last several decades, educators have focused nearly all of their efforts on #3. And anyone who thinks #4 is easy should peruse the factual record of urban districts, starting with NYC in dismissing teachers for poor performance. Hint: The percentage in NYC begins with .000. NYC is not unique.

That leaves recruitment and retention.

On the recruitment side, the story in NYC is largely positive. The days of mass teacher shortages are behind us, thanks in no small part to our alternative certification programs such as Teach for America and the NYC Teaching Fellows, which have provided the quantity and quality of candidates we desperately needed. We now have five applicants for every one we hire. And the value-added research we’ve done suggests no drop-off in quality from traditionally-certified teachers. The sound recommendations of The New Teacher Project for procedural overhauls of HR systems also provide a roadmap for further improvement.

That said, the research shows that becoming a highly effective teacher doesn’t happen overnight. In NYC, we typically hire between 7,000–8,000 teachers each year. And while these teachers may in the long run turn out to be even more effective than the ones they replace, that often won’t be the case in their first year. Even when they do mature professionally, teachers are simply not staying as long as they used to. Only four in 10 teachers who started in NYC 10 years ago are still in our classrooms today.

If an effective teacher is the most critical lever in improving student achievement, and if it takes a few years to become an effective teacher, then we need to do everything possible to retain our best teachers. (Just as we must do everything possible, as difficult as the politics may be, to ensure that our poorest performing teachers exit the system.)

Of course that requires a serious, fact-based discussion into who are ‘the best’ and what it would take to keep them. Teachers leave for lots of reasons, some of which can be addressed at the policy level (e.g. adjusting compensation policies), while others take a more nuanced approach to supporting the work teachers do each day (e.g., providing more competent operational support or encouraging a school culture that embraces collaboration.)

But the topic is too important for political correctness, demogoguing or business-as-usual gum flapping. If what matters most to millions of urban children’s future is the quality of the educators who teach them, we must have the courage to have a politically uncomfortable discussion about whether we are doing everything in our power to attract and retain the best. Interestingly, I find it is the great teachers who work in urban schools who are the ones most vocal on this very point.

That’s why I was gratified to see that the center of gravity appears to be shifting on merit pay. When Barack Obama and George Miller are talking about financial incentives, something has changed. And if Senator Obama is “whispering truth to power,” Mayor Bloomberg is yelling it from the roof tops. Money, as the Beatles remind us, may not buy love. But, it does matter. I taught high school for four years, and it mattered to me. And, the overwhelming majority of teachers I speak to agree. As the Mayor observed, it is “ridiculous” to suspend our most basic assumptions about human motivation in this critical realm while accepting it as a matter of course in every other.

No, I do not believe our best teachers are holding back their efforts. And yes, I agree that most teachers enter the profession for reasons more noble than financial rewards. And I even agree that the mechanics of rewarding educators for performance are fraught with complex questions and even some dangers of abuse. (A good case can be made school-wide bonuses, for example.) But can anyone doubt that it is demoralizing and demotivating when radically different levels of performance are met with complete indifference? The litmus test, however, is this: If holding on to our most effective teachers is the most important consideration in moving our highest-need students towards a successful launch into adulthood, would performance pay at least contribute to that end? The answer to that question has to be a resounding “yes.” Merit pay, in itself, won’t solve our retention challenges. But it’s a very good start.

–Guestblogger Chris Cerf

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