Merit-based teacher pay should be considered

Published 2:58 pm Tuesday, August 7, 2012

It’s standard business practice to align employee rewards with company goals and to provide financial incentives for exceptional performance.

That’s not the case in education. Salary increases for public school teachers in Mississippi are based strictly on longevity and advanced degrees earned. Measures of teacher effectiveness and student achievement aren’t part of the equation.

Education is not business, but the business of education is ensuring that children learn to the best of their ability. While multiple factors are at work, nothing is more important than an effective teacher. Every child deserves the best teacher possible and a system focused on children’s academic progress.

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The time has come for Mississippi to build performance-based incentives into its teacher compensation system. Gov. Phil Bryant announced his support for recommendations in a report from Mississippi State University’s Research and Curriculum Unit that outlines how such a change could be introduced in Mississippi.

“Merit pay” has long been controversial in education circles. But the arguments against it pale when considered against the extraordinarily high stakes involved. We simply can’t afford to continue on the same path with so many students, particularly the economically disadvantaged, underperforming and never finishing school.

The MSU report proposes implementation of performance-based teacher pay incentives in conjunction with the new statewide teacher effectiveness evaluation system under development. That evaluation — along with student test scores — would be the standard for performance pay as the new Common Core curriculum is introduced in the 2014-15 school year. Other variables would be considered, and certainly it wouldn’t be fair to judge all teachers exactly the same way. The MSU recommendations leave some leeway to adapt the principle to local circumstances. …

That’s not to lay all the blame for student performance at the feet of teachers. Our public school system has historically been underfunded and teachers vastly underpaid relative to the importance of their job. But without highly skilled, highly professional, goal-focused teachers, Mississippi’s legacy of educational underachievement and cyclical poverty will never end.

The details in such a system are critical, of course, and educators’ voices must be heard. But with a good faith effort, a fair system of performance-based pay that rewards outstanding teachers and benefits children is both possible and desirable.