Rewards for good teaching, wins for kids
Recently a Yale professor wrote something that was astonishing because it shouldn’t have been astonishing.
Barbara Biasi, a labor economist, vindicated the labor reforms in the Walker-era Act 10. And she redeemed, if I may say so, the good sense of Wisconsinites who favored the reforms.
Biasi has long been studying Act 10’s effects, and she summarized her findings in Education Next, the reform-minded journal. The even-shorter summary: Reforming the way teachers are paid “can be a powerful instrument to attract and retain effective educators, which could have profound and long-lasting effects on students.”
Act 10 reined in the rampant power of public school labor unions in several ways. Before 2011, unions could bargain over many things, such as a district’s choice of health insurer (the union owned one) and the precise way a teacher’s pay would be calculated. After the reforms bargaining was restricted to base salary. And while previously districts collected dues for unions by automatically taking them from teachers’ paychecks, Act 10 made dues voluntary. Unions now have to regularly win the consent of at least half a workplace to go on bargaining for those employees. Membership in the Wisconsin Education Association is about half what it was before Act 10.
Districts were freed, then, to change the way teachers are paid, and some did as soon as the next union contract. Previously, a teacher’s pay was dictated by her years of experience and whether she had post-graduate degrees, a “step-and-lane” system that some districts kept. Other districts instituted flexible pay, offering more money to better teachers.
Biasi pored over districts’ pay details from Act 10 in 2011 through 2015 to measure this natural experiment in pay reform. Because other changes about benefits and dues went into effect immediately while the shift to flexible pay came gradually as contracts renewed, she could isolate the effect of pay reform.
And, oh, what an effect. Districts that shifted to flexible pay attracted better teachers. Or, as Biasi put it, “Teachers who moved to a flexible-pay district after a collective bargaining agreement expired were more than a standard deviation more effective, on average, than teachers who moved to the same districts before the expiration.”
Teachers moving to seniority-pay districts showed no before-and-after. And, she writes, “Act 10 led some teachers to leave the public school system altogether.” Who left? “Teachers who left flexible-pay districts were far less effective than those who left seniority-pay districts,” she writes — meaning Act 10 let districts that embraced it drop weak teachers.
Biasi points out something else: She measures effectiveness via “teacher’s value-added,” a widely used measure of student improvement. Wisconsin districts don’t calculate value-added or use it to evaluate teachers (Biasi got it by other methods). But because districts attracted and paid more to teachers who later proved to be more effective by this independent measure, it means principals actually can identify talent, and they pay for it.
These more effective teachers had low seniority and fewer advanced credentials, Biasi found, so they enjoyed significant pay increases from the move. That’s because, effective as they might have been, the old union-dictated system didn’t value their virtues.
Biasi found more: The prospect of better pay leads teachers to work better. “In flexible-pay districts,” she wrote, “the effectiveness of teachers who did not move or leave also increased immediately after the reform, compared with teachers in seniority-pay districts, suggesting that teachers in flexible-pay districts increased their effort.”
Aw, shucks, Sherlock, one is tempted to say: People respond to incentives. But lest anyone think this suggests teachers are merely mercenary, may I suggest an alternate explanation?
We already recognize that simple jobs can be done well or poorly and that diligence deserves reward. Think overtime or 25% tips.
Teaching is a complex task, at its best a performing art. You get summers off, but you’re grading papers at night all winter, drawing on depths of patience and stamina. You’d qualify for sainthood if you gave 100% every day as your employer’s check showed indifference. Act 10 freed districts to quantify their appreciation for diligence. Teachers responded to the appreciation. This is right and just.
By comparison, it was not right and it was unjust that in the old system, the teachers who were most under-rewarded were the ones most willing to deliver results and effort. It was unjust to children, who now see better results in some districts, and it was unjust to teachers.
Biasi found trade-offs: There are gender-gap signs that men are better than young women in negotiating, and she notes that seniority-pay districts got stuck with weaker teachers.
But the big picture was that Act 10 raised pay for high-quality teachers, increased the quality of teaching and improved student achievement. This is what was predicted at the time in the face of furious opposition, and now the reforms are vindicated: Wisconsinites are better off for them.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.