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Illumination magazine.
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When he talks about systems that prohibit performance pay for teachers, Michael Podgursky uses the dirtiest word in an economist's vocabulary.

"It's inefficient," says Podgursky, a professor of economics at MU. "That's the bottom line. We're not spending money in an efficient way to get the biggest bang per buck in terms of student achievement."

Podgursky is one of the nation's most visible researchers investigating plans to reform educator pay. He is the coauthor of Teacher Pay and Teacher Quality, a 1997 study that questioned the widely held assumption that boosting teachers' pay improves the quality of their teaching. He also serves on the advisory boards of several prominent organizations that urge school systems to explore the feasibility of performance pay plans.

His enthusiasm for this line of research and its potential role in school improvement belies decades of disagreement, much of it contentious, surrounding the use of performance incentives in educator compensation.

"This is the most hotly debated topic in education policy today," says Matthew Springer, a research assistant professor at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development, director of the college's National Center on Performance Incentives, and research collaborator with Podgursky. "More and more states are building data systems that link student performance over time to schools and classrooms. So we have a better picture of how schools and teachers are performing. As we researchers explore this data, we're learning about what works and what doesn't work in compensation policy."

Ninety-six percent of the nation's public school districts -- districts employing some 3.1 million teachers -- report use of a "single-salary schedule" guaranteeing teachers will earn more money as they accumulate years of experience and advanced training. Such schedules mean that within a district, teachers with equal experience and education receive the same salary regardless of what they teach, where they teach, or how well they teach.

So far, Podgursky asserts, research has shown that the two variables for which teachers are typically rewarded, education and years of experience, show only a weak correlation with student achievement. He points, for example, to a 2002 study by University of Washington public affairs professor Dan Goldhaber, published in the journal Education Next, that found only about 3 percent of the contribution teachers made to student learning was associated with teacher experience, degree attained, certification status, and similar measures.

"Economics is about using resources efficiently: The basic idea comes down to costs and benefits. You try to estimate costs, you try to estimate benefits, and then you try to put your money where it has the highest ratio of benefits to cost," Podgursky says.

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