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[Opinion] Teacher Opposition to Merit-based Pay

Posted October. 02, 2008 08:48,   


The school chancellor of Washington, DC, Michelle Rhee is struggling to reform her city’s troubled school system, angering the teachers’ union. The U.S. capital had showed the lowest scholastic performance in the country despite receiving the biggest financial support. Rhee closed 23 schools, fired around 100 superintendents, and warned or dismissed principals and assistant principals considered unqualified. Boosted by the radical reform, she has raised academic performance eight to 11 percent in a year. The Korean-American chancellor has urged Korea not to give too much power to teachers’ unions, saying excessive job security leads to idleness.

Chosen by Newsweek magazine as one of the top 100 people to watch, Rhee gets help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A few days ago, she even addressed the National Press Club. She has a firm trust in the principle that students can change only when teachers change. Rhee asks teachers to choose between seniority-based pay or trade job security for an incentive-based salary up to 131,000 dollars per year. She says teacher competition improves educational competitiveness, whose biggest beneficiary will be children determined to study from low-income brackets.

In Korea, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry has also put a similar system in place since 2001, but few incentives reward teachers for good performance. Base pay used to account for 90 percent of a teacher’s wage and the remaining 10 percent was divided into three grades depending on performance. Last year, the share of incentives slightly increased to 20 percent from 10 percent. Nevertheless, the best teacher earns just 300,000 won more than the worst. The share of incentives will grow to 30 percent this year. The Korea Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union has urged members to use the incentives as a financial resource to wage conflict against the government. This year, it went one step further and urged its members to collect and divide the money evenly.

In his book “The Worm in the Apple,” former Forbes magazine journalist Peter Brimelow said teachers’ unions have destroyed American education. Teachers have much interest in their pay, but they oppose hiring outstanding teachers or introducing a merit-based pay system, he said, adding the main mission of a teachers’ union is to teach members how to negotiate. Brimelow said teachers abhor the idea to give students more authority to choose schools. He compared teachers’ unions to a pesky worm in an apple and public schools to the apple. The same comparison can be applied to Korea’s public education system and teachers’ unions.

Editorial Writer Huh Mun-myeong (angelhuh@donga.com)