Pay For Performance Increases Performance (Water Runs Downhill)

In my 2011 book, Launching the Innovation Renaissance, I wrote:

At times, teacher pay in the United States seems more like something from Soviet-era Russia than 21st-century America. Wages for teachers are low, egalitarian and not based on performance. We pay physical education teachers about the same as math teachers despite the fact that math teachers have greater opportunities elsewhere in the economy. As a result, we have lots of excellent physical education teachers but not nearly enough excellent math teachers. The teachers unions oppose even the most modest proposals to add measures of teacher quality to selection and pay decisions.

As I wrote, however, Wisconsin passed Act 10, a bill that discontinued collective bargaining over teachers’ salary schedules. Act 10 took power away from the labor unions and gave districts full autonomy to negotiate salaries with individual teachers. In a paper that just won the Best Paper published in AEJ: Policy in the last three years, Barbara Biasi studies the effect of Act 10 on salaries, effort and student achievement.

Compensation of most US public school teachers is rigid and solely based on seniority. This paper studies the effects of a reform that gave school districts in Wisconsin full autonomy to redesign teacher pay schemes. Following the reform some districts switched to flexible compensation. Using the expiration of preexisting collective bargaining agreements as a source of exogenous variation in the timing of changes in pay, I show that the introduction of flexible pay raised salaries of high-quality teachers, increased teacher quality (due to the arrival of high-quality teachers from other districts and increased effort), and improved student achievement.

We still have a long way to go but COVID, homeschooling and universal voucher programs have put a huge dent in the power of the teacher’s unions. There is now a chance to bring teacher pay into the American model. Moreover, such a model is pro-teacher! Not every district in Wisconsin grasped the opportunity to reform teacher pay but those districts that did raised pay considerably. Appleton district, for example, instituted pay for performance, Oshkosh did not. Prior to the Act salaries were about the same in the two districts:

After the expiration of the CBAs, the same teacher could earn up to $68,000 in Appleton, and only between $39,000 and $43,000 in Oshkosh.

Thus, pay for performance is a win-win policy. Paying the best teachers more is good for teachers and great for students who see increases in achievement which pay off many years later in higher wages.

Hat tip: Josh Goodman on twitter who will surely agree about the negative effect of egalitarian pay on the relative quality of math teachers.


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