A May 14 Wisconsin State Journal editorial:

Then-President Barack Obama came to Wright Middle School in Madison eight years ago calling for merit pay and other education reforms to improve student learning.

“We’ve got to do a better job of rewarding outstanding teachers,” Obama said. “And I’ve got to be honest, we’ve got to do a better job of moving bad teachers out of the classroom, once they’ve been given an opportunity to do it right.”

His declaration drew applause at Wright, one of the city’s few charter schools. And a day after his 2009 speech, the Wisconsin Legislature voted to link student test scores to teacher evaluations as one measure of performance.

But all these years later, the Madison School District and many others across the state still pay teachers based on years of service and education level— an outdated system that doesn’t improve student outcomes.

That needs to change, with new research by Vanderbilt University helping local and state education leaders justify pay for performance.

Vanderbilt education researchers Matthew Springer, Lam Pham and Tuan Nguyen synthesized 44 primary studies on the impact of teacher pay incentives on student test scores. They found “a modest, statistically significant, positive effect on student test scores,” which they quantified as three additional weeks of learning per year in American schools (and four weeks when international studies were included).

Pay for performance also can “improve the composition of the workforce” by attracting and retaining effective instructors. And it can draw more talent to the most challenging schools.

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More study is needed, the researchers cautioned. Yet they stressed that merit pay is more likely to improve student learning than traditional compensation models.

“We find that aggregating results from multiple studies across different cultural, economic and political contexts suggests that incentive pay, as argued by merit pay advocates, offers a promising strategy,” the Vanderbilt study concludes.

Wisconsin school districts have more freedom than they did eight years ago to redesign compensation systems because Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-run Legislature have curtailed the ability of unions to object.

That said, many teachers have welcomed the opportunity to earn more money for their hard work and success. And the more buy-in districts can achieve from employees, the more likely morale and enthusiasm for improvement will increase.

The study found merit pay systems seemed to work best when teams of teachers were rewarded as a group.

Performance-based incentives shouldn’t be viewed as a partisan issue. Both Obama, a Democrat, and Gov. Walker, a Republican, have favored merit pay, for example. Support is bipartisan and growing. Teachers should be treated and paid like the professionals they are, not as line workers who all earn the same money for the same years of service.

Wisconsin’s stale compensation model is slowly but surely changing. Nearly 40 percent of school districts in the state offer some kind of performance-based pay, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel survey of school superintendents found last year.

The authoritative Vanderbilt study should convince more school leaders — including in Madison — to act.

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