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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION

Tie Teacher Pay to Student Performance

Raises without accountability won't improve learning; the union is wrong to oppose plan.

March 30, 2000|THOMAS DAWSON | Thomas Dawson is a public policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco

Paying teachers based on the performance of their students is an idea that is sweeping the nation. Ramon C. Cortines, interim superintendent, and Howard Miller, chief operating officer, of the Los Angeles Unified School District want to try it.

The plan is slated to be part of the district's contract proposal, which the board must still approve, as it enters into negotiations with the United Teachers-Los Angeles, the local union. This merit pay is in addition to across-the-board hikes for all teachers. Nevertheless, union President Day Higuchi has threatened a strike if the proposal is not eliminated, claiming the plan is a "scheme" that would treat teachers unequally.

The proposal, however, is actually quite simple. Currently, district salary schedules are based on seniority and the number of credentials teachers receive, regardless of the impact on student achievement. The new plan would tie pay to students' performance on the Stanford 9 standardized test. Recently released rankings determine goals for improvement on the test from this year to next. Under the plan, teachers at any Los Angeles school would be eligible for a $2,000 bonus if their students' test scores exceed these goals. Teachers at low-performing schools could reap an extra $3,000 if their students' scores increase above the stated goals. Instructors who develop skills that are in demand--particularly in the areas of math and science--would be eligible for an additional $2,000 raise.

While UTLA often complains that teacher salaries are too low, under the district's plan, an accomplished math teacher could see a salary jump of $7,000 if student performance improves. Despite this potential and the already proposed 6% uniform pay increase, the union is demanding a 15% salary hike for its members, already among the highest paid, not only in the state but the nation. According to the most recent figures from the California Department of Education, beginning Los Angeles teachers make just under $33,000 annually, while the statewide average is $28,000. The national average for beginning teachers is about $26,000. The average salary for all teachers in Los Angeles hovers above $46,000, while the statewide average is $45,000. Nationally, the average salary is about $39,000.

Despite the higher-than-average salaries, student performance in Los Angeles has languished. Empirical evidence suggests that pouring more money into uniform salary increases won't help increase achievement. More fundamental reforms are required.

Paying teachers based on student performance is an idea that has gained traction elsewhere. In Denver, the city's teachers union approved a pilot performance pay plan last year. In suburban Philadelphia, a local district recently approved a districtwide plan that ties teacher salaries to student performance. In Florida, all districts must include performance components in their salary schedules. Even in Los Angeles, at the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a charter school exempt from the district's contract, teachers have chosen to base their salaries in large part on student performance.

Paying teachers for how well their students perform is anathema to the state's powerful teachers unions. Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest union, is on record urging, "I hope not one teacher or association in California will even contemplate any merit pay proposal."

Despite such resistance, district officials still have decided to take on the contentious issue. Says Miller, "The system right now has failed a great many of our students. We believe that proof of performance has to precede additional funding." He realizes systemic reform is needed to right its course, but he needs cooperation. As contract negotiations get underway, UTLA has a clear choice to make. The union can either join with Cortines and Miller in demanding accountability by rewarding teachers for their students' improvements, or it can continue to protect the failing status quo.

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