For Many Teachers, Reform Means Higher Risk, Lower Rewards

One of the central policy ideas of market-based education reform is to increase both the risk and rewards of the teaching profession. The basic idea is to offer teachers additional compensation (increased rewards), but, in exchange, make employment and pay more contingent upon performance by implementing merit pay and weakening job protections such as tenure (increased risk). This trade-off, according to advocates, will not only force out low performers by paying them less and making them easier to fire, but it will also attract a “different type” of candidate to teaching – high-achievers who thrive in a high-stakes, high-reward system.

As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case. I’m also not convinced that personnel policies are necessarily the most effective lever when it comes to “attracting talent,” and I’m concerned that the sheer size of the teaching profession makes doing so a unique challenge. That said, I’m certainly receptive to trying new compensation/employment structures, and the “higher risk, higher reward” idea, though unproven in education, is not without its potential if done correctly. After all, teacher pay continues to lose ground to that offered by other professions, and the penalty teachers pay increases the longer they remain in the profession. At the same time, there is certainly a case for attracting more and better candidates through higher pay, and nobody would disagree that accountability mechanisms such as evaluations and tenure procedures could use improvement in many places, even if we disagree sharply on the details of what should be done.

There’s only one problem: States and districts all over the nation are increasing risk, but not rewards. In fact, in some places, risk is going up while compensation is being cut, sometimes due to the same legislation.

For example, Ohio’s controversial legislation (Senate Bill 5) eliminates tenure for new hires and guts collective bargaining rights, while simultaneously rolling back pay increases and increasing health care contributions (effectively a pay cut) for teachers and other public employees. Ohio Governor John Kasich actually promoted the bill as a cost-cutting measure, with the savings coming from public employee compensation, including that of teachers. In other words, more uncertainty in exchange for nothing or even less, all in the same bill.

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