Ed Reform 101: Merit Pay, Seniority & Tenure

Blue Jersey’s Ed Reform 101

Part 3 – Myths about Merit Pay, Seniority & Tenure

Ed Reform 101As with so many other parts of the corporate “reform” agenda, adherence to merit pay and abolishing tenure is more a matter of faith than reality.

The truth is that there is no evidence that radically changing how we fire, layoff, and pay teachers will have any positive effect on student learning. There are, however, many reasons to believe that instituting merit pay and getting rid of tenure will harm students and the interests of taxpayers.

We also know that the difference between high-performing and low-performing schools is not whether they have merit pay schemes, or tenure, or lay offs based on seniority; why impose these changes on schools that are doing a great job educating kids?

What you should know about merit pay, seniority & tenure:

  • “Pure” merit pay experiments in schools have failed every time they’ve been attempted.
  • Merit pay, as conceived by corporate “reformers,” is rare and limited in scope in the private sector.
  • Experience matters, and senior teachers should not have to fear for their jobs simply because they’ve followed the decades-old tradition of making more money later in their careers.
  • Teachers are fired or counseled out of the profession regularly.
  • Tenure is necessary not just to protect teachers, but to protect students and taxpayers from cronyism and corruption.

    Myth: Paying teachers on merit will work because it’s so logical.

    The Truth: Every time merit pay for teachers has been tried in a controlled study, it has failed.

    – Merit pay has been tried and failed in New York City, Tennessee, Texas, Chicago, Michigan, and even 18h century England. (These are “controlled” studies where merit pay is the only variable.)

    Myth: Earning more money will be a great motivator for teachers.

    The Truth: Merit pay has never been shown to be particularly effective, and teachers don’t want it.

    – Decades of research shows that pay for performance is a weak motivator. (See the bonus video below for an entertaining take on this idea!)

    Teachers overwhelmingly agree that tying their pay to performances on state tests is a bad idea.

    Myth: Teaching is the only profession where people aren’t paid on merit.

    The Truth: Merit pay as conceived by “reformers” is rare in the private sector.

    – Only six percent of workers are awarded regular output-based payments (p.6)

    – Most of those are concentrated in the finance, insurance, and real estate industries.

    Myth: It’s not fair to keep a “bad” senior teacher and lay off a “good” younger teacher.

    The Truth: Experience matters, and it is unfair to fire a senior teacher just because she has earned higher pay.

    – There is a large body of evidence that shows that experience matters in teaching.

    – There is no evidence that layoffs based on test scores are less error prone than those based to seniority.

    – Considering that 50% of new teachers leave in their first five years, retaining younger teachers in favor of senior teachers will inevitably increase teacher turnover.

    Myth: Far fewer teachers are fired than other professionals.

    The Truth: The rate of teacher firings compares favorably with the same rate for doctors and lawyers; moreover, the teacher attrition rate is far higher.

    – A close look at statistics from around the nation suggests that teachers are removed for incompetence more often than doctors or lawyers.

    Myth: A teacher with tenure can’t be fired.

    The Truth: Many teachers leave the profession before a tenure hearing when they receive bad evaluations.

    – Hundreds of teachers are counseled out of teaching without a hearing when they receive their first tenure charges.

    – Districts win tenure cases over teachers 3-to-1.

    Myth: Tenure is unnecessary; there is little political pressure on teachers.

    The Truth: Political pressure on teachers is well-documented and growing.

    – In New Jersey, the Elizabeth school board’s pressure on teachers to fill campaign coffers is a bleak cautionary tale about the politicization of schools.

    – Reports of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption in school districts nationwide demonstrate the need for tenure.

    Myth: Tenure leads to lazy teachers and poor student performance.

    The Truth: Teacher effectiveness is not impeded by tenure.

    – There is no relationship between tenure status and student performance. (Remember: tenure is NOT the same as seniority.)

    For more information on merit pay, seniority & tenure, we recommend:

  • Matt DiCarlo’s shankerblog.org.
  • Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability from the Economic Policy Institute.

    Next in our series: Teachers Unions

    Tuesday, 8/30/11: Standardized Testing

    Wednesday, 8/31/11: Teacher Quality

    Thursday, 9/1/11: Merit Pay, Seniority & Tenure

    Friday, 9/2/11: Teachers Unions

    Sunday, 9/4/11: Charter Schools & Vouchers

    Tuesday, 9/6/11: Recap

    Bonus! Here’s a terrific video, adapted from a talk by Daniel Pink. It’s not only illuminating; it’s lot of fun. Enjoy!

  • Comments (4)

    1. Rosi Efthim

      Jazzman, do you know if any of the major school parent organizations like PTO or PTA have taken a position on any of this?

    2. defendcom

      Merit pay outside of the teaching profession is a stretch! Every employee would need to be on the same playing field for it to be a “fair” measure. Apples to apples comparison. The diverse background of each student would make this impossible! Merit pay for teachers?? Simply a trick to depress wages and get rid of them whenever for whatever reason the powers to be desire.

    3. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      … is Parents Across America:


      I’ve not looked into the national PTA’s stance on these issues: put it on my list!

    4. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      I’ve not gotten into any ulterior motives in this series, but I find it very suspect that we’re talking about merit pay at the same time conservative governors are whining about how we’re running out of money.

      To me, the acid test for politicians who support merit pay is this: do you believe that the overall payroll of teachers should increase, decrease or stay the same?

      If it’s “decrease” or “stay the same,” you are talking then about taking merit pay from some teachers and giving it to others. That means some kids will get a merit pay teacher, and some won’t. Is that fair to the kids?

      Another argument that Bill Gates, among others, is making that we should increase class sizes, and have fewer, better paid teachers. Leave aside all the evidence about small class size’s benefits – teachers want small classes. You will drive many good teachers away if you impose this on them, and then you’re back where you started.

      Add to this that many of these same “reformers” send their kids to private schools that brag on small class sizes…


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