Time is Money or Maybe Not!

wrist-watch-941249_640Suppose you are a really good teacher and can prove it.  You notice that a neighboring district has a pay for performance plan where high quality teachers with less experience earn more money than average teachers with more experience.  Would you change districts?  In today‘s Gainesville Sun, a local economist, Dave Denslow, summarized a study by Barbara Biasi, a Stanford graduate student, who compared school districts in Wisconsin that used a ‘pay for performance plan‘ with districts that did not.   The result?





When districts negotiated salaries with individual teachers, a less experienced but high performing teacher would earn more than a more experienced less ‘capable’ teacher as measured by student test score gains.  The lower performing teachers in those districts tended to leave the profession more often than in districts that used a salary schedule based on qualifications and experience.

On the surface, this sounds like a good way to improve the quality of teachers in the profession.  (Of course, there is no valid way to measure individual teacher quality.)  Dig deeper, however, and Biasi acknowledges that if all districts in Wisconsin used a pay for performance approach, the difference in quality among districts would likely be minimal.  The incentive for moving would be reduced.

Thinking even further ahead, how would districts afford the salaries that high quality teachers could/should command if all teachers were deserving?  The source of revenue does not increase.  Where would the funds come from?  As in many industries, employees with higher salaries would be encouraged to leave as funds became scarce.  The likelihood is that teacher benefits like health insurance and retirement would also disappear.  These benefits are major reasons why the teaching profession attracts good people now.  Another reason may well have to do with time flexibility–shorter work days, holidays, and summer vacations.

When Denslow asserts that pay for performance systems may advantage the charter school sector, he may have a point.  Charters typically do not provide benefits.  They use an ‘at will’ hiring policy that allows them to dismiss a teacher for no cause.  Their teacher turn over is at least three times higher than in district schools.  Many charters use inexperienced Teach for America to college graduates with strong academic backgrounds who do not plan to remain in teaching more than two or three years to pay off college debt.  Of course, these teacher candidates are in short supply and do not thrive in most difficult inner city schools.

Denslow turns to Boston Charter high schools as an example of where younger, less expensive teachers are employed.  Boston is fortunate to have several of the highest quality universities in the nation that create a large pool of Teach for America graduates to staff charters.  Students in these six charter schools, as reported in a MIT study by Angrist et al, have made extraordinary progress.  The students should be congratulated.  But, how did it happen?

In Angrist’s study, the schools enrolled students by lottery.  Thus, the parents who applied should have been similar in their support for education.  Oddly, students who were admitted to the charters had significantly higher baseline test scores than those who applied and were not admitted.  The student drop out rate for both groups was high.  By the time the students were in eleventh grade, the difference in students baseline scores diminished, mostly due to higher attrition rates for lower scoring students in traditional public schools (TPS), the authors assert.  Graduation rates, however were no different for charter and the TPS students.

What was different was that the charter school students tended to take a fifth year to complete graduation requirements!

The reward is significant.  Test scores for these charter high school students were much higher than those applicants who returned to TPS; they also enrolled more frequently in AP courses.  While the data indicate that charters enroll few second language children and fewer students with disabilities, those differences are declining.  The reasons for the success, Angrist reports, are differences in instructional strategy and time.  These six charters are run with the ‘No Nonsense’ approach of strict discipline and teaching to the test.

These charters have longer school days, Saturday school and longer school years.  Teachers expect to spend about ten hours plus per day at school.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that helping disadvantaged children learn takes time.  More time requires either more funding or exploiting people with moderate salaries to work an immoderate number of hours.  It is no wonder that the reform movement has targeted teacher unions.  This is a struggle that many industries in all parts of the country have encountered.


Posted in Achievement, Admission/Dismissal, Charter Schools, Disability, discipline, Funding, Massachusetts, Public Education, Reform, Research studies, Teachers, Testing, Wisconsin.


  1. Thoughtful comments. Based on the Wisconsin experience, if Florida were to adopt a similar law, the effect on Alachua County would be negative, since we’d lose good teachers to surrounding counties. (I assume that we’d stick with the step-degree pay schedule, as did Madison in Wisconsin.) Over the long run, you could speculate that the state would on average gain, as better students select into teaching. The Roy Model that Biasi mentions is just that. If you have
    one employer or profession that pays by skill and another that does not, the skilled people will self-select into the one that pays by skill. We’ve seen that happen in teaching versus most other professions.

    The short-run cross-district effects would be smaller in Florida. Our school districts are much larger than in Wisconsin.

    An Indiana study, somewhat to may surprise, finds that teachers don’t seem to value large pensions all that much, least the younger ones. I still favor DB pensions, however, because of the negative social consequences of DC for public employees. The DB contributions should be restructured, to result in less backloading of teacher pay.

    A mostly unrecognized part of the transfer that the U.S. is seeing to the top 1% from the bottom half (about 8% of national income over the past twenty years) is from the young. The old protect themselves through generous pensions, backloaded pay, and medical benefits. Yes, of course, part of the attack on teacher unions is the effort to weaken the
    middle class, though another motive is to improve education.

    K-12 education is complicated, to say the least. From what I’ve read substantial gains for students would come from flattening the pay scale to pay entering teachers relatively more and finding a way to ease the bottom five percent, almost however measured, out of teaching. I fear I’m motivated as much by anecdotal evidence as by more solid evidence on that. I’ve been involved with a public school and a private school in Tampa. The public school has several teachers who are simply awful, which is not true of the private school. (The public school also has outstanding teachers. The difference is the terrible ones.)

    Vouchers, by the way, are almost guaranteed to fail in Florida because we underfund them (as with education in general) and then underregulate them. What in the world should we expect with that combination?

    • There are private schools that accept FTC scholarships and those that do not. The tuition in high quality private schools tends to be higher than the FTC vouchers. Thus, less affluent people do not get access to those. Instead they attend mostly religious schools that accept FTC stipends that are 20% lower than the amount per student paid to public schools.

      Here in Gainesville I have been told that there are 17 former public school teachers who were not renewed and now teach in charters. Teachers in general are in short supply. Alachua County for example has 41 vacancies right now. This is attributed to fewer college students going into education. Attrition for teachers in general is high, particularly for beginning teachers. Flattening the salary schedules in order to raise salaries and attract more teachers may work initially, but the Gates Foundation in Hillsborough pulled out of their bonus program for successful teachers. It did not work. Problems in many inner city poverty area schools discourage many of the most well intentioned teachers.

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