Why Is Paying Effective Teachers More A Form of “Teacher-Bashing”?


One tic I really don’t understand is the practice of referring to performance pay plans for K-12 teachers as “teacher-bashing”. If I proposed putting all the professors at the University of California on a flat salary schedule based on years on the job, would people deem that a “pro-professor” proposal? Why? What’s of interest, salary-wise, to teachers in the aggregate is how much overall money is spent on teacher compensation. A “teacher-bashing” proposal would, it seems to me, be a proposal to reduce overall expenditures on teacher salaries. Obviously any proposal to alter the scheme by which the workforce in any profession is compensated will generate some winners and some losers, and the losers have every right to complain about it. What’s more, since most people are mildly risk-averse about this sort of thing I think it’s perfectly understandable that most teachers are unenthusiastic about changing compensation systems.

That said, nobody I know who advocates for paying teachers based on demonstrated efficacy rather than simply based on experience is interesting in “bashing” teachers. If anything, it’s the reverse and union opponents of these proposals tend to traffic in arguments that are ultimately contrary to the interests of the profession. After all, the whole point of what reformers are saying is that teacher quality is very important to educational outcomes and the long-term trajectory of students’ lives. It’s true that that analysis supports reforming the way we pay teachers. But it’s also an analysis that supports investing more money in paying teachers. The point, after all, is that hiring and retaining effective teachers is very important and worth spending money on.

The status quo, by contrast, tends to be bolstered by arguments that actually do have certain teacher-bashing implications. You hear maybe that school quality just isn’t that important—that unless we first eradicate poverty we can’t improve schools. Or that education doesn’t matter that much, that the real way to decrease inequality and boost prosperity isn’t through better schooling it’s through direct labor market interventions and trade restrictions. Or you might hear that school quality is important, but that teacher quality isn’t something that matters very much—that we should focus on making schools more racially and economically integrated and not worry rock the boat in terms of who works in schools or how they get paid. Those arguments may or may not have some merits to them, but none of them are very flattering to teachers. Indeed, they all seem to me to imply that we should probably be cutting spending on teacher salaries and just plugging the money into improving school lunches or whatever. And I don’t think they’re arguments teachers would be likely to embrace as general propositions. When you talk to teachers, in my experience they generally believe that the work they’re doing is important, that doing a good job makes a difference, and that the very best teachers are having unusually large impacts on their students’ lives.