Do the Math: Money Plus Merit Equals Better Teachers

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Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is the former chairman of IBM and the founder of the Teaching Commission (website: theteaching

Pop quiz. Name the one American profession in which workers get almost no rewards for a job well done; that’s having the toughest time attracting and keeping the best and brightest people, just as it faces an unprecedented demand for new hires; and in which the quality of the worker determines, more than any other, whether or not our young people excel.

The profession is teaching. And that’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s call to usher California’s schools into the modern era with performance-based pay for teachers is the right reform at the right time.

Few Californians need convincing that the state’s schools are subpar. A Rand Corp. study, released this week, put it starkly: “California’s public school system lags behind most of the nation on almost every objective measurement of student achievement, funding, teacher qualifications and school facilities.” The report noted how far the state’s position had fallen since it was a clear national leader a generation ago.


What makes good schools good? If we could wave a magic wand and improve one thing, what would it be? Buy new desks and books, cut class size or put an exemplary teacher in as many classrooms as possible?

First, consider what the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning reported last month: “Nearly 60,000 California teachers are over the age of 55. If those 60,000 teachers leave the profession at the average ... retirement age of 60, California will need to replace one-fifth of the state’s teacher workforce in the next three to five years.”

One reform rises above the rest in urgency and importance: investing in teachers. Invest in them now by building a teaching profession in California that is the envy of the world. Improve preparation programs, which currently don’t give teachers the training they ought to, particularly in the subject area they teach. Streamline certification and licensing systems. Strengthen professional development. (According to the Rand study, just 46% of California school districts require teachers to be fully certified in the subjects they teach.) And attract the best with good base pay and modern incentives for excellence.

While other professions have offered more and more rewards to people who do good work, teaching has lagged behind. All good teachers in the state are underpaid compared with other professions -- one study shows teacher pay in California falling below the national average when adjusted for the state’s cost of living. And for professionals talented in math, science or engineering who can earn far more in fields outside education, the shortfall is stark.

And that will remain the case until we professionalize teacher compensation. The norm now is that a teacher equals a teacher equals a teacher, no matter how desperately society may need a certain skill set and no matter how well a teacher performs in the classroom. The precious few exceptions, like Denver public schools -- where teachers approved a plan that would phase in a system that takes into account student growth, market incentives, evaluations and teacher knowledge and skills -- aren’t yet enough to change the paradigm; California is.

Schwarzenegger deserves credit and support for leading the charge for change. And he’s not alone; others, like the Broad Education Foundation in Los Angeles, have been working to develop innovative pay systems.


There is no doubt that we will hear from naysayers: Merit pay can’t be done fairly; it rewards teachers who have the easiest students to teach -- the ones who come from wealthy homes or start out with a head start; it breeds unhealthy competition.

But the fact is, a merit pay system can be built fairly to give the most to teachers who produce the biggest annual academic improvement, and to factor in a wide variety of measurements of excellence, including peer and principal review. Even an imperfect system would be far better than the current single-salary schedule. And while we reward the best, we need to empower principals to lead, making sure they have the proper authority to hire and fire teachers. And as far as competition goes, since when is a little healthy effort to be the best at improving reading or math scores such a bad thing?

This is not a Republican issue. Building a system that pays teachers based more on results is one of the core recommendations of the bipartisan nonprofit organization I founded -- a group that includes a former Democratic secretary of Education and two former Democratic governors.

This is not a time for red-hot rhetoric. It’s time to look honestly at the shortcomings of the current compensation system and work together to design one that works better for teachers, for students and for us all.