How high-performing charter schools do 'merit pay'

With all the positive press surrounding high-achieving charter schools, it's not surprising that they've turned into the education reformer's go-to point of comparison. And so, when Jay Mathews wrote earlier this week that districts could learn a thing or two from high-flying charters about performance-based pay for teachers, I was intrigued--especially because, as Mathews made clear, these schools generally don't pay their staff that way.

Instead, the reward for teaching in great charters is a great work environment--a culture of success, where strong performance is praised, and, more importantly, shoddy work holds consequences.

Mathews explains that successful charters are wary of performance pay because such a compensation system could pit teachers against one another. It would also refocus the spotlight away from student performance and back on the squabbles of adults.

But we have to be careful. Just because charter schools don't do merit pay doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't experiment with it in traditional public schools. Why? Because, when it comes to individual teachers, charter and district schools start from a completely different premise: in most charters, teachers can be fired, usually without much hassle, while in traditional, unionized schools, they cannot. Put another way, teachers are pitted against one another--for their very jobs.

This is an important distinction because it means that charter schools already have an incentive scheme that encourages good work: if you don't perform, you'll get fired. That's not to say that pay is equal across all charter school teachers. In Washington, D.C., for example, charter salaries are largely pegged to the district's pay structure, along with a stipend that accounts for the many extra hours working in a high-performing charter school requires (making the total take-home larger, but the hourly rate similar or even less.) The difference is that high-performing charter teachers can't get very far up the pay scale if they're ineffective because they'd be dismissed first. In other words, pay rewards performance indirectly since employees are at-will--your pay goes up if you can cut it. In merit pay schemes, pay rewards performance directly; when you cannot be terminated, it's hard to think of another gauge.

The currency of the charter rewards system is respect: knowing that your peers--other teachers--have their jobs because they deserve them, not because they made it through three years without molesting a child or passed an eighth-grade level exam that has little relationship to actual teaching quality. This can make a huge difference when it comes to workplace culture. And we've long understood that stellar co-workers can inspire and motivate us--and underperforming colleagues can drag us down.

Charter-school HR is an individualized system: individual teachers getting retained or dismissed on the basis of performance--just like merit pay schemes under discussion in places like Washington, D.C. Yet teachers in these high-flying charters are not pitted against one another. Instead, they exist in harmony, accepting the common goal of student achievement and reveling in their own individual contribution to its attainment. It's teamwork qua the sum of its parts. Even if some of their coworkers get a larger paycheck at the end of the month, there is a general understanding that those teachers work at that school in the first place because they deserve to do so.

There is no such understanding in district schools. Since a tenured teacher is practically impossible to fire, the negative incentive to work harder--i.e., the risk of losing your job--does not exist. Performance never enters the picture.

So what's left? Incentivizing in the other direction--positively--with individual merit pay.

Merit pay is, admittedly, an imperfect system, at least so far. Since there is no losing money, only gaining it, it tends to normalize the status quo; work that is simply average remains completely acceptable. And you'll surely find plenty of teachers who are content enough with life as it is--including their paychecks. But merit pay does do one thing: shake up the system. In other words, it opens the door on potential excellence and presents a way to be recognized, finally, for good work. Stepped salary schedules do not do this.

Critics squawk that merit pay is unfair and prohibitively tricky. Not only is quantifying teacher effectiveness difficult, but evaluation systems are at best flawed and at worst useless. The New Teacher Project recently found teacher evaluation systems to be laughable and, earlier this year, the National Council on Teacher Quality discovered that instructional effectiveness is rarely considered when making tenure decisions. But we're not completely in the Dark Ages any more. Significant strides have been made in identifying traits that predict classroom success and in developing "value-added" calculations of student learning. Merit pay does not have to be putting "a dollar figure on the backs of 9-year-olds performing on a test," as one teacher Mathews interviewed describes it.

In a perfect world, districts would adopt the charter method of incentivizing teachers and abolish tenure. But so long as that's politically infeasible, individualized merit pay is the main method we've got to recognize good work and shake up the mediocre-is-fine culture of too many schools.

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