Gerstner Commission Endorses Teacher Merit Pay

Published April 1, 2004

Teacher unions long have resisted merit pay for K-12 teachers while insisting on standard pay scales based on seniority and credits amassed in education courses.

Surprisingly, however, the concept of major pay boosts for teachers who produce objectively measured gains in student achievement recently won unanimous endorsement from a 19-member privately funded commission that included the president of the nation’s second largest teacher union–Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Chaired by former IBM chief Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., the Teaching Commission has a smattering of Republicans but most conspicuously features Democrats who were prominent in education policy during the 1990s–among them, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, and former North Carolina Governor James Hunt, founding chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).

“[T]he public school system currently offers virtually no incentives to reward excellence, and a system that does not reward excellence is unlikely to inspire it,” said Gerstner.

While endorsing improved pay for teachers, the commission report, “Teaching at Risk,” concluded painful experience demonstrates that “simply raising salaries for all teachers will not, by itself, raise student achievement.” Instead, it called for “a far-reaching break with tradition”–paying teachers more when they consistently bring about improved student achievement.

The commission called this a “new compact for teachers,” part of which would be a commitment to raise the level of teacher pay, and part of which would recognize the need to measure a teacher’s classroom performance and to compensate it accordingly. The report also called for higher salaries for teachers who serve as mentors, agree to work in the most troubled schools, or teach specialties where educators are in short supply, such as math and science.

To gauge how much a teacher has contributed to a student’s test-score gains year to year, the commission recommended a value-added method be used as part of evaluating a teacher for significant pay increases. Many states, pondering how to meet teacher quality requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, already are looking at a value-added assessment system pioneered by statistician William Sanders when he was at the University of Tennessee.

Ironically, given the growing national interest in the value-added approach, a pair of state legislators from Nashville introduced legislation in February seeking to kill the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). Supporters of TVAAS were rallying to save it.

So is the AFT now on board with merit pay even if the larger teacher union, the National Education Association, is not? Maybe so, maybe not: While stating that members unanimously “signed off” on its report, the Teaching Commission added individual members would “give greater or less emphasis” to specific recommendations or “prefer one method over another.” Feldman issued an AFT release declaring, “Although I do not agree with some aspects of this report, I support its thrust and direction.”

Feldman didn’t say what she disagreed with, and her statement hailed the general idea of “teacher compensation through more professional salary arrangements that reward knowledge, skills, and performance.”

In addition to merit pay, the commission–composed of leaders from government, business, and education–suggested the following reforms:

Accountability for teacher education. University presidents should raise standards for entrance to their teacher training programs and beef up the academic content of those programs. Currently, students with the highest grades and test scores are the least likely collegians to sign up for teacher training. The commission endorsed toughening the Higher Education Act so that teacher education programs failing to meet acceptable performance standards would lose federal funding.

More sensible state rules for teacher certification. The report urged states to junk low-level tests of basic competence in favor of exams measuring verbal ability and content knowledge, which have been shown to be key to effective teaching. In many states, teachers are not required to pass tests of knowledge of the subjects they teach. Licensing bureaucracies should be streamlined to make teaching more attractive to a wide range of qualified candidates, not just those who have amassed credits in professional education courses.

Empower principals as CEOs. Public school districts should give principals ultimate say over personnel decisions, as is done in most private schools. In turn, principals should grant their teachers more opportunity to benefit from mentoring and professional development, and to make more decisions independently.

The Gerstner group strongly criticized the long-dominant collaboration of education schools and state departments of education in certifying teachers largely on the basis of pedagogical courses completed. This system “discourages quality teachers from entering the field, discounts the importance of content knowledge, and is characterized by low standards and unclear relevance to classroom realities.”

The report gave just one sentence of praise to the NBPTS for certifying 25,000 teachers according to what it called “high and rigorous standards.” The Gerstner panel had more to say about a newcomer, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE). It said the ABCTE is developing “high-quality teacher credentials that are portable and can be earned in a time-efficient, cost-effective manner.” ABCTE plans to use student achievement as a criterion in certifying master teachers.

In his 2005 budget, President George W. Bush proposed zero federal funding for NBPTS, which since 1990 had received $129 million from the U.S. Department of Education. Last October, the Department awarded ABCTE a five-year $35 million grant to develop alternative routes to full teacher certification.

The Teaching Commission is a three-year project headquartered in New York City at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The January 2004 report of The Teaching Commission, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action,” is available online at