A Case for Incentive Pay


Larry Sand makes the case for merit or incentive pay in the California Policy Center while teacher union officials defend a pay structure that rewards even ineffective teachers and awards outstanding teachers the same pay.

When I first began to substitute teach in Los Angeles in 1985, I learned about “incentive pay.” If a sub was willing to go to “schools in need,” he could earn about 40 percent more than a regular sub. Rather impecunious at the time, I jumped at the opportunity. And the incentive, also known as “combat pay,” is still in force, but it’s only available for subs.

The rest of the teachers in Los Angeles – and most of the country – still hang with the industry-style, highly unprofessional way of compensation: ye olde step-and-column method whereby teachers, no matter how talented they may be, are paid by their number of years on the job. They can also increase their salaries by taking “professional development” classes, despite conclusive research by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek and others showing that these classes have zero effect on student learning.

When teacher salary schedules first came to be about 100 years ago, they were designed to eliminate discrimination due to race, ethnicity and gender. With such discrimination illegal today, there is no need for them, but the vestigial practice is still a teacher union imperative.

The Brookings report also delves into the unfairness of teacher pension systems. Today, Hansen says, young people are more mobile “in terms of both geography and occupational choice. A teacher of 10 years who moves with a spouse to another state could lose significant pension wealth, and would have been better off had the district instead contributed to a 401(k) on her behalf.” Hence, funding for an incentive program could come from monies now used for budget-busting defined benefit pension plans that only benefit lifer-teachers.

Merit pay, incentive pay’s first cousin, also provides positive results.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.