A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Two more Michigan school districts have earned praise for implementing merit-based teacher pay.

Blissfield Schools and the St. Clair intermediate school district join Oscoda and Suttons Bay in transitioning away from an industrial-era assembly line worker type compensation system to one that recognizes and rewards teachers as motivated professionals. There are reasons to think this may be the start of a trend.

It’s estimated that 85 percent of school districts nationwide still use the outdated uniform single-salary schedule that pays teachers like factory workers, rewarding them only for years on the job and accumulating more pedagogic credentials and certifications. This has been the norm since teacher unions were granted collective bargaining and “exclusive employee representative” privileges beginning in the 1960s.

The world has changed in ways that make this model increasingly untenable. For example, a 2009 law signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and inspired by President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative requires new union contracts to use student performance as a “significant factor” in determining teacher pay. By itself that law does not ensure that districts will ditch the old model (for example, see Mt. Clemens), but it makes preserving it more difficult.

The 2009 reforms also improved teacher evaluations, and combined with additional reforms enacted in 2011, should encourage more districts to pursue merit-pay systems. Reform efforts are still threatened by defenders of the status quo, but will nevertheless require measuring how well teachers are performing in the classroom. The very existence of such information creates pressure for change.

Other state reforms passed in 2011 will have similar effects. The longstanding practice of using seniority as the sole determinant in school job placement and teacher layoff and recall decisions (“last in, first out”) is now prohibited.  School boards that base these decisions on performance may increasingly ask why they shouldn’t also base compensation on similar measurements.

Finally, a new law enacted last year prohibits teacher unions from bargaining over the “development, content, standards, procedures, adoption, and implementation” of performance-based compensation. This means school boards won’t need the union’s permission to implement merit pay or be forced to negotiate whenever they want to tweak their performance-based system.

As always, getting the devilish details of implementation right is crucial, but the pieces are in place for school districts to begin rewarding excellence and discouraging mediocrity — in other words, treating teachers like professionals. 

Teachers should welcome the changes. As one union official said about the change to merit pay in her district, "But we also could see there was potential for the staff to be rewarded for their hard work as well."

Central Michigan University economist Jason Taylor explains how raising the minimum wage will hurt teen workers trying to find their first job. See more at "Raising the Minimum Wage, Lowering Opportunity."


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