Toward A Public School Meritocracy?

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

The prospect of a performance review is a white-knuckle event for most of us. After all, our standard of living for the year ahead hinges on a job well done. Though fraught with tension, a performance-based compensation system makes good sense and creates all kinds of incentives to achieve. Such logic is lost on the education establishment, however. Thanks to them, pay stubs and performance rarely intersect in the lives of America’s public school teachers.

Instead, public school teachers are rewarded based on years of experience, certifications and degrees, not what happens when they are actually on the job. Such a system is the brainchild of the education establishment, whose vigorous lobbying efforts have turned the rules of the market inside out. This persists, even though public education’s pay program is at odds with current practices at private schools and university systems around the country, both of which commonly link salaries with job performance.

All of this means there’s no shortage of opinion on merit pay. Search for it on the Internet, and you’ll find over a million sites discussing the issue. Hard data evaluating the pros and cons of merit pay, on the other hand, has been in short supply. However, a new report from the University of Arkansas should change that.

According to University of Arkansas researchers, using a merit-pay system to compensate public school teachers produced “significant gains in student performance on standardized tests and a more positive work environment for teachers.” Data was gathered from the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP) in Little Rock, Arkansas, a partnership between the Little Rock School District and the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock. Operating within five of Little Rock’s 34 elementary schools, ACPP serves a higher percentage of poor and minority children than the district average. Student performance on the nationally-normed Stanford-9 Achievement test was the only basis for financial rewards for teachers and staff; teachers could earn up to $11,000 in bonus money.

Researchers evaluated just one year of data, finding that the average student improved his scores by nearly seven percentile points under a merit-pay system. The report’s authors speculate that six years of these compounded gains would effectively close the black-white test score gap. Additionally, teachers at participating schools said merit pay increased collaboration and did not create more counterproductive competition. This finding directly contradicts a common argument put forth by the NEA teachers’ union, claiming merit pay creates unhealthy competition between teachers.

Here in North Carolina, merit pay is an unpopular idea. Pay increases are doled out to every teacher across the board, regardless of job performance. The Governor and General Assembly exalt the “national average” as the gold standard for teacher pay, despite the fact that teacher salaries in North Carolina already exceed the national average, when cost of living and teacher experience are considered.

What can we do? It’s time to challenge those individuals I often refer to as the Gatekeepers of Mediocrity (GOMs). Defenders of the status quo, the GOMs, block any kind of innovative change within the government system. But while the GOMs may lobby against meaningful reform, they can’t craft laws. Only elected officials can do that. This is good news for voters, who wield considerable power at the ballot box. Citizen-voters must also ensure elected representatives have access to accurate data, so they can separate fact from fiction.

In the end, if we’re serious about advocating for change, we need to push back against the tide of mediocrity and those who promote it. After all, we’ve already been there, done that. Surely, the GOMs are the kinds of people Albert Einstein had in mind when he defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Call me crazy, but isn’t it time we tried something new?

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.