Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon column is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.
Hardin County Schools Superintendent Teresa Morgan at a recent town hall on public pensions bemoaned the fact that interest in vacant teaching positions has dropped in recent years from as many as 100 applicants per opening to as few as 10, with some openings in math and science fields nearly impossible to fill.
Her recruiting pitch is, “We can’t say ‘you will make $150,000,’ but we can say we will pay you a living-wage salary and a pension that you will be proud of – one that you have earned and deserve.”
But touting retirement benefits are an awkward way to recruit and retain teachers.
Instead, why shouldn’t Morgan be able to offer a starting physics teacher a higher salary than, say, a new physical education instructor?
While Morgan is eager to defend extremely generous pension packages, she and her fellow Kentucky superintendents should also acknowledge the consequences of using a one-size-fits-all salary schedule as the primary mechanism for hiring teachers.
This approach shoehorns decisions about teachers’ salaries into only considering numbers, not types, of degrees earned and years of experience.
There aren’t nearly enough incentives to attract candidates for scarce skill areas.
A merit-pay policy could help.
Vanderbilt University recently released a new study claiming merit programs are more likely to accomplish what single-salary schedules based on simply having an extra degree and two decades in a classroom cannot: attract and retain high flyers to subjects where a shortfall exists and motivate current teachers in every area to improve, all of which positively impacts students’ academic opportunities and achievement.
The study found a “statistically significant positive association between teacher merit pay programs and student test scores,” amounting to four additional weeks of learning.
Pop quiz: Quick, name a pension benefit or sick-day policy that’s added an entire month’s worth of learning to a student’s academic experience?
Common sense and the experience of other professions dictate the truth that too many teachers-union leaders and bureaucrats spurn: retaining high performers – especially those willing to accept harder-to-fill positions – requires recognizing some teachers simply perform better and contribute more to our children’s education.
“Nothing demotivates a high performer faster than knowing that the employees who have contributed much less in the organization, have received the same pay increase or bonus,” Susan M. Heathfield writes on The Balance while examining “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Merit Pay.”
Heathfield writes about how merit pay affects professions in general, but it applies to teaching at least as much.
Where are the stakes higher than when we’re preparing future generations to lead this country and commonwealth?
Union leaders and sympathizers will generally circle the wagons faster than John Wayne when the discussion gets serious about merit-pay approaches that require evaluating teachers on a set of performance-related factors.
But they also have some legitimate concerns that must be addressed for a merit-pay system to work in Kentucky.
For example, including test scores in the evaluation process requires having a valid, reliable testing system that assesses students in the fall when they enter a new grade and then again in the spring – with results being available in a much-timelier manner than currently happens – to show the teacher’s value and impact upon her classroom.
This allows a teacher assigned a group of struggling, disadvantaged students from low-income homes in the inner city an opportunity to reap rewards for improvement she brings to those in her class between August and June rather than basing the merit of her work on how she stacks up against teachers in a suburban school with kids from wealthier homes and lots of advantages.
Merit pay would offer Kentucky a chance to build a reputation of attracting the best and brightest into its classrooms – even with more modest pension benefits.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at email@example.com and @bipps on Twitter.