For Many Teachers, Reform Means Higher Risk, Lower Rewards

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

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 and seniority (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.

Similarly, recent legislation in Florida severely weakened teachers’ collective bargaining rights, eliminated tenure for all new hires and instituted merit pay throughout the state. There is still little idea of where the money for performance bonuses will come from, but it’s doubtful they'll make up for the fact that Governor Rick Scott has already said he will be closing the state’s $3.6 billion shortfall in part by cutting teachers’ benefits. Making things worse, Florida teachers’ base salaries have remained largely flat for the past four years. Again, higher risk, lower reward.

But these are just two examples that have gotten national attention. Tenure, job security and collective bargaining rights have been axed or weakened in many other states. There is, of course, Wisconsin, where teachers’ and other public employees’ bargaining rights were severely limited, while health and pension benefit contributions were increased (again, by the same piece of legislation). Bargaining was largely eliminated in Indiana several years ago – one result was a pay freeze in 2009 and 2010, along with higher health insurance payments (again, this is effectively a pay cut). Similar bills have also passed recently in states like Tennessee and Michigan, and we are sure to see more states, such as New Jersey, try to do the same.

I don’t know if the “higher risk, higher reward” model is a good idea for teachers – as always, it will probably depend on the design and implementation of the policies. But I do know that eroding job protections and rights without additional compensation, and especially with pay decreases, is unlikely to have anything but harmful effects on both current teachers as well as the supply of applicants. The fact that some people are presenting these bills as mechanisms for improving teacher quality suggests that they themselves may not completely understand the risks and rewards involved.

- Matt Di Carlo


Indiana teachers are still allowed to bargain. The problem is that the legislature limited negotiations to wages and benefits. Working conditions (and everything included under that label )are off limits (That's called union busting).

If course, there's hardly anything left to haggle over. The state has made permanent drastic cuts to local schools. Most teachers have been working with frozen wages with no relief in sight.

The state has created a new system of compensation designed to "reward" effective teachers. Ironically, the system will actually make the average lifetime earnings of a career teacher even lower than it already is.

You can't reward good teachers unless you have the money to do so.



Yes, you're of course correct. The same goes for Wisconsin and other states. Instead of eliminated, I should have said "largely eliminated." To me, limiting bargaining to wages is tantamount to eliminating it, but that doesn't change the facts. I am correcting the post in a couple of points, with apologies.



As you likely realize, no one is actually arguing that these reforms are about higher risk and higher reward.

What they argue is that greater recognition is what matters. They say that the kinds of folks they want to attract to teaching want recognitions for how much better they are than…average?…those around them? But they want to know that if they are better that they will get more rewards.

That's actually their argument.

You are right, the better version of their argument WOULD include greater rewards to go with greater risk. But that's not what they want to do. And that's is not their argument.


I don’t know if the “higher risk, higher reward” model is a good idea for teachers...

This is an excellent point, and is a debatable point. Of course, an entirely separate question is "What's best for students."


There is also the additional question of timing in a higher risk, higher reward model. For example, those willing to take more risks in say their 20's may not be as willing to do so in their 30's. I'm assuming here that those first entering the teaching profession through traditional pathways do not have things like mortgages and babies. On the other hand, when one acquires those things, I should think that one becomes more risk averse. Consequently, the model mentioned above may lead to more long term instability in the teaching profession as those who become more risk averse than they were when they began move out of the teaching profession.