Education Secretary Arne Duncan says paying public school teachers based on their performance is his “highest priority,” and he plans to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars to states and school systems that embrace the idea. In the District of Columbia, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has made such reform a cornerstone of her agenda — and a backdrop to her recent move to lay off 229 teachers in response to budget cuts. But school reformers have been trying unsuccessfully to introduce performance pay in public education for decades. If today’s reformers want to break the deadlock, they’re going to have to let go of several myths hanging over the debate:
1. Merit pay has a strong track record.
The logic of performance pay is compelling: Paying teachers based on the college credits they’ve amassed and the years they’ve taught — a practice introduced in the 1920s to counter salary disparities between male and female teachers — means bad teachers draw the same paychecks as good ones. That, in turn, seemingly makes it tougher to recruit and retain talented teachers, meaning students end up with inferior instructors. No surprise, then, that people have been pushing merit pay for a long time: “Every effort must be made to devise ways to reward teachers according to their ability without opening the school door to unfair personnel practices,” a commission urged President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955.