Maybe there is a free lunch after all:

Firing the poorest-performing teachers may be the biggest free lunch available in education policy.

That’s from an article headlined “Job Security for Poor Performers” by Andrew Briggs and up today at The American. Briggs writes that the generally fire-proof nature of a job in the public sector is often regarded as a freebie: it does not, this reasoning goes, cost the taxpayer. 

But it does cost us, says Briggs. He cites a new study by Thomas Dee of Stanford and James Wyckoff of the University of Virginia, who examined the IMPACT program in DC public schools. Under that program, high-performing teaches reaped financial rewards, while low-performing teachers saw the prospect of dismissal.

Briggs writes:

Dee and Wyckoff isolate the effects of the IMPACT program on teachers’ behavior by comparing teachers who almost received financial rewards with those who crossed the threshold and received the reward; similarly, they compared teachers whose performance ratings were almost poor enough to warrant a dismissal threat with teachers who received the dismissal warning. Dee and Wyckoff found that:

•    Financial rewards given to high-performing teachers further improved their performance. One reason might be that D.C. teachers who maintained high performance ratings receive permanent pay increases in addition to their bonuses.
•    Dismissal warnings for low-performing teachers had two effects: a 50 percent higher voluntary quit rate among those threatened with dismissal, but substantial performance improvements among those who remained on the job.

In other words, strong job security for public employees keeps more poor performers on the job and reduces incentives for poor performers to improve.

We pay an enormous price for this. Think how much better public education would be if we could improve the quality of instruction merely by not continuing to employ bad teachers?

The kind of almost ironclad job security enjoyed by teachers—and other public employees—reduces the teachers who are not inspired to do good work to cogs. They can come to work every day (well, maybe not every day), not teach, and yet draw a paycheck.

If I may, I’d like to extend this post to include a few words about what I like to call the Democrats’ War on Work. By raising the specter of sexual discrimination whenever salaries are merit-based, proposed “equal pay” legislation has the potential to reduce the private-sector work force to similar cogs: show up, don’t break a sweat and draw a paycheck. Don’t do more if you are a guy, because if the boss gives you a raise, she might get hauled into court for sexual discrimination. It is very likely that "equal pay" legislation would translate into "pay security" for low performers.

Industriousness, Charles Murray wrote in Coming Apart, used to be the quintessential American virtue.  Firing low-performing workers and giving merit pay to high-performing workers is a way to keep industriousness alive.