News Story

How Unions, Districts Hold Back Michigan's Best Teachers

State 'teacher of the year' finalist earns less than $45,000

Every year the teachers union local at the Birmingham school district requests nominations for its “Teacher of the Year” award. Yet the district itself did not designate a single one of its 624 teachers as “highly effective” in its 2013-14 staff evaluations, the most recent released by the state.

Moreover, the Oakland County district does not offer merit pay to reward successful teachers, despite a state law that requires this.

Ironically then, Birmingham teacher Rick Joseph was selected by the Michigan Department of Education as the state's 2015-16 teacher of the year.

Joseph earned $88,770 in 2014-15, but not because of his highly rated teaching abilities. Instead, the salary is based solely on a formula comprised of the number of years he's been on the job (20) and the number of academic credentials he has accumulated.

The combination puts Joseph at the top of the union pay scale, without regard to his real-world effectiveness in the classroom.

Not all teachers recognized for their excellence are compensated as well. David Stuart, a teacher at Cedar Springs district in Kent County, was a finalist for the 2014-15 state Teacher of the Year award. Stuart has only been teaching five years, and so earned $44,827 in 2014-15. That’s about $13,000 less than the district’s average teacher salary of $57,645.

The contrast suggests that the current system of union-negotiated public schoolteacher contracts, combined with many districts' casual compliance with state requirements to implement an effective teacher evaluation system, are holding back many of Michigan's best teachers.

While the public supports merit pay for teachers and legislators have passed laws to require it, large portions of Michigan's public school establishment do not appear willing to recognize and reward the state's "best and brightest.”

Two laws passed in recent years were meant to recognize and protect excellent teachers, but they have not been effective.

A 2010 law requires public schools to "implement and maintain a method of compensation for its teachers and school administrators that includes job performance and job accomplishments as a significant factor in determining compensation and additional compensation."

More reforms followed and in 2011, with another law prohibiting teacher layoffs to be based solely on seniority ("last in first out," or LIFO) without any regard for a teacher's effectiveness — or lack thereof.

The 2010 law did not prescribe how districts should determine the criteria or level of merit pay and the State Department of Education does not track compliance. “We aren’t required to collect such data,” said MDE Spokesman Bill Disessa.

“The reasons those teachers aren’t making what they are worth is union officials and reluctant school administrators,” said Audrey Spalding, the education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “They are making sure that teachers with the same experience and level of education all make the same amount of money. An exceptional teacher shouldn’t be making a mediocre teacher’s salary."

While many school districts simply violate the law, some do provide a modest bonus to excellent teachers. For example, Ann Arbor Public Schools gives $150 to its best teachers.

But at the Oakland Intermediate School District, Superintendent Vickie Markavitch has been a vocal critic of merit pay, saying it doesn’t raise student achievement. The ISD gives no bonus pay to its top teachers. Instead, 18 of 100 teachers who are deemed to meet eligibility requirements are selected randomly and sent to a professional development conference. The Oakland ISD covers up to $1,600 in expenses, including the conference registration.

For the vast majority of Michigan public school districts, the teacher evaluation process has not gone smoothly. In 178 public schools districts that had adopted an evaluation process in 2013-14, not a single teacher was given the top "highly effective" rating.

“Those school districts don’t value exceptional teachers,” Spalding said. "School officials should put their money where their mouth is. If you have a truly exceptional teacher who is helping students achieve above and beyond others, you should be paying those teachers what he or she is worth. There are exceptional teachers out there who teach difficult classes and produce incredible gains for their students. Those teachers should make $100,000 per year.”

James Perialas is a teacher at the Roscommon school district, and head of the union local there. He said not many teachers are happy with how evaluations are done by district administrators, describing it as a dysfunctional system.

“We once had an outgoing principal rate all his elementary staff ‘highly effective,’ while the other administrators were much more stringent on their ratings,” Perialas said in an email. “Were all the district's best teachers in one building? I think not. This alone exposes a huge problem with a merit pay system. Another problem is the question of whether merit pay is even a motivating factor for teachers. Most of the teachers that I know, are either internally driven, and give their very best effort regardless of merit pay (my opinion) or, they are inherently ‘not good’ and any carrot dangling in front of them would still not turn them into a good teacher.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.