Merit pay fairness is not about teachers

Opposing teacher merit pay based on fairness issues isn’t being fair to students. Instead, it’s cruel to students.

A letter to the Wichita Eagle states “I think it is impossible to develop a fair merit pay plan for education.” Reading the letter, it is clear that the writer is concerned about fair to teachers. Instead, we ought to be concerned about what is fair to students.

There is much research showing the link between good teachers and learning. Most studies show that teacher effectiveness is the most important thing under the control of schools, and far more important than class size. Paying effective teachers well is important for retaining the best teachers. But even more important: If teachers can be paid based on their effectiveness, that will provide a signal to bad teachers that they should either work to improve their skills, or leave teaching.

Is it overly cruel and harsh to say there are some teachers so bad that they should ushered out of the profession? It depends on who is most important: Teachers, or students?

Looking at this issue, Malcolm Gladwell reports:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Gladwell’s article speaks as to how teachers can be evaluated so we can find the best and the worst. That’s important, because if we retain the worst teachers and pay them the same as the best teachers, we aren’t being fair to students.

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