I am well aware of the drawbacks of so-called “merit pay” for teachers. Among the many problems, paying teachers for performance can lead to things like: “teaching to the test”, undervaluing the non-academic aspects of teaching, and/or discourage people from teaching in lower quality schools. Just like any other pay system, merit pay has its problems.

But can you name another profession, especially one as widespread as teaching, where pay is never based on quality but instead purely on experience and how many degrees you have? Not only do teachers’ unions want to block merit pay from becoming the standard by which teachers are paid, though. They are also trying to outlaw bonuses for the best teachers.

If we want to woo in the best and brightest into the teaching profession, do you think a good way to do it is make inept and uninvolved teachers get paid as much as the ones who stay at school until late at night, take an interest in their students’ personal lives, or work hard to raise students’ self-esteem?

Merit pay may be imperfect, but there’s got to be a better way to pay teachers other than number of degrees and seniority – which is what most teachers’ unions push for.

Alex Tabarrock, also known as “that other guy who blogs at Marginal Revolution”, notes the alarmingly high rate of teacher absences in US public schools:

On a typical school day, 5-6% of teachers are absent, i.e. equivalent to an absence once every 20 days!

Bearing in mind that the typical school year is 180 days, add absences to all the school holidays, teacher workdays, staff development days (btw, ever seen a Walmart shutdown for a staff development day?), and other non-teaching days (e.g. in Fairfax, Mondays are half-days) and the number of days of true teachng greatly diminishes.

Teachers probably do get sick more often than other workers but teacher absence rates are three times higher than for managers and professional employees in the private sector. Moreover, are you surprised to learn that teacher absences are most frequent on Mondays and Fridays or that teacher absences are of a duration just short of that requiring medical certification of illness?

That’s moral hazard for you! As someone who was a student in an American public school until a few years ago, this isn’t at all surprising. I remember how frustrating it was to waste entire blocks of class time with a substitute teacher while watching pointless movies or doing busywork. Teaching is an especially bad profession for high employee absence rates because (1) a large number of people are directly affected, since it’s almost impossible for class time to be productive for students if the teacher is gone; and (2) a wasted school day really is gone forever, since there’s no way to make up instruction time by working a little later the next few days like you can in a lot of other jobs. If teachers are missing about 1 day out of 20, that means that the average teacher accumulates about 9 absences during a typical 180 day school year. The parents of student who is absent that often are likely to get a concerned call from the principal. We should be holding our teachers to a higher standard.