A Bonus for Teachers

This page has been critical of the United Federation of Teachers many times in the past, but on this occasion, we have nothing but good things to say. That’s because the UFT has agreed to a plan that would pay bonuses to teachers in high-needs schools whose students perform well on standardized tests. The plan is good for teachers and students alike, which means it’s good for the city.

Teachers’ unions around the country have resisted the idea of merit pay for good teachers, and in fact UFT president Randi Weingarten was loath to refer to the bonuses as merit pay. She said the agreement “shuts the door on the individual merit pay plans that I abhor.” O.K., so it’s not merit pay. But it surely is a plan that leads to more money in the paychecks of good teachers. Call it what you will—just get the plan through the State Legislature, which must approve it and implement it as soon as possible.

Ms. Weingarten’s word games aside, the bonus plan achieves a goal that education reformers have been focusing on for years: Tying financial incentives to teacher-student performance without regard to cumbersome union rules about seniority. In that sense, the agreement between the UFT and City Hall truly is historic.

Getting to this point required flexibility on both sides. City Hall, for example, agreed to distribute about $20 million in bonus money to schools that meet the criteria rather than to individual teachers. The money would be distributed to teachers by a compensation committee within the school. And, let’s remember, eligibility for the bonuses will be based strictly on performance, not on mere seniority.

Had the Department of Education insisted on choosing individual teachers (and union members) for performance bonuses, this agreement would never have come about. City Hall wisely recognized that obstacle and found a creative way around it.

The UFT built in a few safeguards of its own so that none dare suggest that the union has broken ranks with its brothers and sisters around the country on the issue of dreaded merit pay. Union chapters in schools will vote on whether or not to participate, and schools will be judged by their overall performance, not by individual teacher performance.

But for all the give and take, a principle has been established. It is now city policy to offer tangible rewards for good instruction in schools that desperately need inspired, motivated teachers. That’s the big idea.

A Bonus for Teachers