Newsweek columnist Jonathan “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” Alter, who seems determined to be Bill Gates’ Boswell, believes along with his muse, that seniority “is the two-headed monster of education—it’s expensive and harmful.” (Hey, isn’t that true of columnists too?). Abolishing seniority rights is “a moral issue,” he writes. ”Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?”
“In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ ”
I’m no economist, but unless I’m very much mistaken there lots of other parts of the economy where pay is not tied to performance. Like, oh, nearly all of it. Government spending accounts for about 30% of U.S. economic activity. Just about all public employees tend to get across the board annual raises of 2-4% in both good times and bad. (I’d be curious to know what percentage of government employees have their pay tied to performance at any level; White House employees, incidentally, seem to have enjoyed especially nice raises this year relative to the country at large). And those of us who have spent time in corporate America can attest that annual pay raises are not always rigorously tied to performance. To wit: only 14% of U.S. companies have instituted wage freezes this year, even as the economy suffers through a “troubling slowdown” of economic growth. Clearly huge numbers of people are benefitting from pay increases not tied to performance. And next year, the divide between pay and performance in the private sector may be even wider. A recent survey shows 98 percent of U.S. companies plan to award an average 2.9 percent base pay increase in 2011; just 2 percent of companies are planning across-the-board salary freezes.
Again, I’m no economist, but if corporate pay raises at all levels are expected to rise 3 percent in 2011, that’s about 50% greater than current GDP growth. None of this is to say that teacher pay should not be tied to performance. Merely that it’s odd to suggest that teachers are outliers.