CHARLIE MITCHELL: Mississippi already offers proven ‘merit pay’ for teachers

By NEMS Daily Journal

As Mississippi teachers return to their public school classrooms, the notion of paying them based on their ability to teach is back.
This was called “merit pay” in the past. In the new incarnation, unveiled by Gov. Phil Bryant last week, it is “PBC,” which stands for performance-based compensation.
Regardless of what it’s called, the concept has a checkered history. One problem, of course, is that unions don’t like it. While that’s not a big factor in Mississippi, the lingering questions are, “Who decides who’s a good teacher?” and “What is the basis for making a decision?”
Getting rid of bad teachers or at least paying them less is one of those ideas that sounds easy, but is challenging to put into practice.
If a teacher is assigned to a classroom full of high-performers who blow away standardized tests, should that teacher be paid better than one who accepts the challenge of teaching special ed?
If pay rates are left to the principal or the school board, there will be allegations of favoritism or racism.
Gov. Bryant, seemingly aware of the inherent difficulties, commissioned a study of PBC by experts in the field at Mississippi State University. Their 60-page findings form the basis of the plan he endorsed last week.
It’s a good report.
Surprisingly, however, it doesn’t mention or evaluate the performance-based program in place in Mississippi for nearly 20 years. The same was true several years ago when former Gov. Haley Barbour floated his push for paying teachers who do a good job more than those who don’t.
The “PBC” already specially funded with millions of dollars in Mississippi is administered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Mississippi teachers who have successfully completed this evaluation of their classroom abilities have been and are being paid a lot more in “extra” compensation than amounts suggested in the MSU report. Specifically, Mississippi’s 3,316 nationally certified teachers – an average of 22 per school district – are paid $6,000 more per nine-month contract than their noncertified counterparts with the same degrees and experience. The add-on pay is limited to 10 years, but certificates can be renewed.
Maybe Bryant’s idea is to replace the National Board plan with the PBC. That’s not clear.
What is clear is that the national program is time-tested, nonpolitical, race-neutral and works.
A kicker is that teachers must choose to seek the certification and pay the independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization a nonrefundable $2,565 to find out whether they measure up.
There is substantial rigor in becoming certified. The burden is on applicants to prove knowledge of their subject area and, more importantly, effectiveness in conveying what they know.
As the number of certified teachers has grown, state lawmakers have fretted over where to come up with the money to pay teachers who have proven their skills. But every year so far, they’ve found the funds.
Here’s the essence: Teachers who commit to and invest in seeking certification are those who are likewise committed in their classrooms. They are evaluated on their abilities, not their students’ abilities.
That should be the goal of any incentive plan, regardless of what it is called.
There will be a lot of jawboning in the Legislature about education, especially charter schools. Gov. Bryant will be pushing PBC, but please know merit pay is already available to Mississippi teachers. Or at least to those willing to demonstrate their abilities.
Write to Charlie Mitchell at Box 1, University, MS 38677. Email: