Pay teachers for results, not degrees

By John Hood | Apr 30, 2014

RALEIGH — While crafting the state budget last year, the North Carolina General Assembly applied the latest empirical research to the question of how best to improve teacher quality. In response, lawmakers have been roundly excoriated by the usual suspects — which only served to demonstrate that the public-policy acumen of the usual suspects is, uh, suspect.

For decades, North Carolina gave salary supplements to teachers who acquired graduate degrees. Our state wasn’t alone. The practice became increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s as states created “career ladders” and other pay plans intended to enhance teaching quality and performance.

Perhaps the idea was worth a try. It seemed plausible that teachers with advanced degrees might be more effective than other teachers, either because of the content of their graduate programs (almost always at schools of education) or because the ability to do graduate-level work might correlate with the ability to teach students.

But the idea proved to be a colossal flop, wasting hundreds of millions of tax dollars while doing nothing to enhance student learning.

Don’t take my word for it. Salary bumps for teachers with graduate degrees has become one of the most-studied education reforms in modern times. Just since 1990, there have been at least 86 studies published by academic journals or the National Bureau of Economic Research that either examined teacher-education supplements directly or used the share of teachers with graduate degrees as a control variable for explaining student achievement.

Few reforms have yielded clearer, albeit disappointing, results. In 70 of those 86 studies, there was no statistically significant relationship between student outcomes such as test scores or graduation rates and their teachers possessing graduate degrees. In four studies, the relationship was negative. So in just 12 studies, 14 percent of the total, did students do consistently better when their teachers had graduate degrees.

Compare this to another idea that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s: giving salary supplements to teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Former Gov. Jim Hunt was one of the originators of this idea, which helps to explain why North Carolina has a disproportionate share of the nation’s board-certified teachers.

Although board certification hasn’t been studied nearly as much as graduate degrees for teachers, the available evidence is still modestly supportive. Nine of the 17 academic studies published to date show that students of board-certified teachers perform at least a little better than comparable students in other classrooms.

So the General Assembly didn’t get rid of North Carolina’s salary supplements for board certification. But it did end the pay boosts for graduate degrees. The recurring savings will be about $19 million. What did lawmakers do instead? For one thing, they set aside $10 million a year to give performance-based pay raises to the state’s best teachers. They also spent about $1 million enhancing the state’s value-added assessment system to give principals and superintendents better information about teacher effectiveness and another $7.5 million to fund North Carolina’s adoption of rigorous, independent testing of high school students with the ACT and related assessments.

Each of these policy decisions had empirical support. Most academic research shows that rigorous testing is critical to the educational success of states and nations, and that value-added assessment of teachers yields valid information for use in staff development, employment, and compensation decisions. As for pay policies in America or around the world that reward teachers for gains in student achievement, 14 of the 23 studies published since 1990 show positive, statistically significant results. Among the 10 studies looking at performance bonuses at the school level, rather than for individual teachers, seven show positive results.

Ditching graduate-degree supplements in favor of rigorous evaluation and performance pay was a wise decision. Yes, the critics continue to fume, particularly those who work in the schools of education that awarded the vast majority of the graduate degrees in question (and were thus prime beneficiaries of the old system). State lawmakers should hold firm. They got it right the first time.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

Comments (9)
Posted by: Scott Lilly | Apr 30, 2014 09:44

I think the argument should go even higher.  What are the "results" that are to be rewarded?  Not all students will perform equally.  If a teacher has a disproportionate percentage of poor-performing students, will that teacher risk earning less?  If a teacher takes a job in a school where there are more poor-performing students, will that teacher risk earning less?  Result-based compensation is a GREAT idea -- but the metric and measurement of "results" is the key.

Posted by: Charles Zimmerman | Apr 30, 2014 10:24

                 Common sense dictates that in an educational setting, additional education should be encouraged and rewarded if put to use in a positive way.

                  To not encourage education is just plain stupid.

                   Teachers are paid to do a certain and particular job based on their educational skill level. Just as in any human endeavor, not all will perform as well as others. Some will fail. Many will excel. Those presented with unsurmountable tasks of teaching the under-privileged undereducated should be judged on the extent to which their students have advanced from where they began. Not all will achieve the standard necessary to go to the next grade. But this does not necessarily mean the teacher failed. All considerations must be taken into account. I doubt hood cares a fat flying pigs patute about doing anything more than creating a system whereby OUR public schools are systematically dismantled and replaced with for profit "Christian" schools as has been promote by pope, koche's, white supremists of all spectors.

Posted by: Scott Lilly | Apr 30, 2014 13:09

Mr. Zimmerman, I believe we agree on this point: "Not all will achieve the standard necessary to go to the next grade. But this does not necessarily mean the teacher failed. All considerations must be taken into account."


And I believe Mr. Hood would also agree with you that whatever you define as "all considerations" to take into account, paying teachers for an advanced degree which statistically does not improve performance (put to use in a positive way) is a change worth making.


I hope teachers who have invested in the advanced degree as part of the "career ladder" at least have a phase out period where they get enough value from their advanced degrees so that they are not left holding the bag after government alters course.

Posted by: Charles Zimmerman | Apr 30, 2014 13:47

             Mr. Lilly;


             What sense does it make to not encourage teachers to be educated? Granted an advanced degree in a non-applicable field notwhithstanding.



Posted by: Scott Lilly | Apr 30, 2014 14:27

Human Resources experts say the best practice (I guess for any industry) is to "pay the position, not the person."  Does the position of "teacher" require an advanced degree?  No.  Do teachers who have advanced degrees perform the role of "teacher" better?  Statistically as measured, no.


But I have a sneaking suspicion that we're not yet shooting for the right target or measuring the right things to determine if advanced degrees are providing benefit.  I think the "advanced degree" intention was to attract and retain better quality teachers.  The measurement is how well students are performing on average.  It's conceivable that the talent is there but the management, use, and/or measurement of that talent is lacking.


There is also the possibility that the institution that awards the advanced degree isn't up to par.  If someone who earned an advanced degree statistically performs no better than someone without the advanced degree, someone ought to take a hard look at what the advanced degree is supposed to teach.  The argument might be made that what's learned in earning the advanced degree has little benefit for teaching students and that might be that advanced degrees might focus too much on something like "public policy" -- little to do with how to perform in a classroom.  As well, if there are inadequate mail-order advanced degrees out there that distort the facts, that could be part of the problem.

Posted by: Scott Lilly | Apr 30, 2014 15:18

"It's conceivable that the talent is there but the management, use, and/or measurement of that talent is lacking." -- More specifically stated, if the charter of the public school system is to PROVIDE a free education, then making highly-qualified teachers available to the public to get a free education is the measurement of success.  How many students/families will squander that opportunity is not much to do with teacher performance.  I'll be willing to bet Dr. Hammett's point about having more parent involvement equates to better performing students more than any single variable in the public schools.


If you take a baseline measurement of all the students as they came into the class and as they graduated the class, take the top 10% of the improved students as an indicator of the learning that is possible for those that wanted it.  Measure THAT statistic.  Now you are better measuring the opportunity available and not student performance.

Posted by: Charles Zimmerman | May 01, 2014 07:23

                Just as in life in general, the top 10% rarely need teaching or support. They are by nature, achievers. It is the bottom portion of the class and or Society that needs the most work. How We treat OUR bottom is indicative of what kind of society We are.



Posted by: Scott Lilly | May 01, 2014 08:53

Mr. Zimmerman, maybe that is the crux of the issue.  A liberal prefers to give that "bottom" things/resources to make it more tolerable/comfortable in that position.  A conservative prefers to highlight something above the bottom and offer a path to it that anyone can be inspired to achieve with applied effort.


Directly relating to this story, if our highly-qualified teachers spend 80% of their highly-qualified efforts merely teaching a "bottom" part of the class manners (instead of advanced reading/writing), then the highly-qualified component of the teacher job is mostly wasted and that would be talent mis-managed.  And what do we as a society have to show for those highly-qualified teachers that are under-utilizing their advanced-degree talent for which we have been paying a premium?  We ought to better use their advanced-degree talent or stop hiring/paying advanced-degree talent.

Posted by: Charles Zimmerman | May 01, 2014 10:17

                   Hire another to assist the advanced-degree holder with their tasks. Hire as many as it takes to get the job done. OUR future depends on it. 

                    "As you do unto the least of me you do unto me".


                    "Where there are no distinctions there can be no superiority; perfect equality affords no temptation". Thomas Paine

                     "Taxes, after all, are the dues we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society". Franklin D. Roosevelt.


                       All must pay the bill of OUR govt. in proportion to their earnings. It is just that simple. $5.00 to those without is of a great burden. $1,000,000.00 is nothing to those worth ten times as much.

                     If the inequality We are now experiencing is not corrected there will be another civil war. The downtrodden will only stay under foot so long. AKA. The Clippers.



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