Massachusetts Governor Proposes Merit Pay System for Teachers

Published December 1, 2005

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has proposed a package of education reforms–including merit pay for some public school teachers–for consideration this fall by the Massachusetts legislature. At press time, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education was expected to hold hearings on the proposal by the end of the year.

“If we’re serious about keeping our kids at the forefront of a highly challenging and competitive world economy, then we have to take the necessary steps to energize our education system,” Romney said in a September 22 statement accompanying the new education proposals.

The package of education reforms includes a program to purchase laptop computers for students in grades 7 through 12, hiring new math and science teachers, a requirement for most schools to offer Advanced Placement (AP) math and science courses, an overhaul of the teacher evaluation process, additional vocational training as part of high school, and increased remedial measures for schools with chronically bad performance.

The merit pay plan, which would be implemented over two years, includes three ways in which individuals could earn merit pay.

Earning Merits

Under Romney’s plan, $2,500 individual bonuses would be available to any instructor who teaches an AP math or science class, participates in the Commonwealth Teaching Corps (a program enabling college graduates with degrees in math, science, or engineering to teach in public schools), receives high teaching evaluations, or passes the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure.

In addition, teachers who demonstrably improved students’ academic performance on standardized tests would be eligible for bonuses, though no more than one-third of the teachers in any district would be able to receive merit pay based on performance evaluations. Teachers could earn up to $5,000 in bonuses in any academic year–for example, by teaching two AP courses, or by teaching one AP course and receiving a student performance bonus from the district. Performance standards would be subject to approval by the Massachusetts Board of Education.

“With significant and targeted new money linked to incentives for teachers we can make Massachusetts a national leader in math and science,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation and co-chair of the Great Schools Campaign, in a statement released by the governor’s office September 22.

The total cost of the education reform package is projected to be $189 million over two years. The projected cost of the merit pay initiative, assuming 100 percent of the districts participate, is estimated to be $70 million during the two-year period. Most districts that participated in the program would be required to pay 50 percent of the merit costs from their existing revenue sources. The state would cover 100 percent of the costs of merit pay in schools characterized as “turnaround schools”–those which have not experienced significant academic improvement, as determined by standardized-test scores, over a three-year period.

Getting Demerits

The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, strongly opposes the merit pay plan. In a September 22 statement, the union said it was an “inequitable, ineffective, and divisive” plan that “def[ies] logic” and is “riddled with absurdities,” based partially on the union’s assertion that fewer AP courses are available in schools located in poorer neighborhoods.

“If the governor truly wants to help improve student achievement, his first step should be to reverse the hundreds of millions of dollars in state education spending cuts that have occurred on his watch and before,” MTA President Catherine A. Boudreau said in the statement. “If he has another $69 million to spend, that money would be far better spent by targeting help to low-performing schools, reducing class sizes, extending learning time for struggling students and using other proven strategies.

“What’s worse,” the statement read, “it gives good teachers an incentive to flee inner-city schools for the suburbs. Why should an AP calculus teacher in Weston receive a $2,500 bonus for which a remedial math teacher in Worcester is not even eligible?”

The MTA also rejected the provision that only one-third of the teachers in any district would be eligible for bonuses, saying this “would arbitrarily deny extra pay to excellent teachers” and is “uniquely designed to destroy collegiality in a school.”

Dividing Teachers

Instead of merit pay for some teachers, especially those in the fields of math and science, the MTA asserts pay for all teachers should be increased and all classes should be smaller. When asked for comment, the union referred to its news releases. But Mass Insight Education, another education group in the state, supported Romney’s idea.

“All teachers certainly deserve to be paid a fair wage. However, we believe the time has come to look at more than just seniority and courses completed when it comes to compensation packages,” said Alison Fraser, director of Mass Insight’s Great Schools Campaign.

“Merit pay should reward teachers based on levels of responsibility, differing levels of expertise, and improving student achievement,” Fraser continued. “We are dedicated to excellence in teaching in all subjects; in the real world, though, economic imperative dictates paying more for workers in some disciplines than in others. It may be time to adopt this global economic model, in order to attract the best teachers to the hardest-to-staff positions.”

If Massachusetts adopts merit pay for teachers, it will become the sixth state to do so. Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, and North Carolina all use public funds to support bonuses for classroom performance.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.