Liam Julian posted a couple quick blurbs on merit pay today, including one partially in response to a comment I left on the first. Merit pay is, as I'll explain, fine and dandy on paper -- but I still worry about its feasibility in real life.
By "merit pay," I mean plans to pay better teachers more money -- which has taken all sorts of forms in different schools and districts.
The basic theories behind merit pay, as far as I can tell, are that:
-Teachers will work harder if they know that better teaching will result in more money
-It's more fair to pay teachers based on how good they are than on seniority or education
-Successful teachers are more likely to stay in the profession if their success is rewarded
-Brighter and more driven people are more likely to enter the profession if they know that their success will be rewarded
-Less successful teachers are more likely to leave voluntarily if their pay isn't advanced
All of these are eminently reasonable assumptions. On paper, they make a lot of sense. It wouldn't surprise me at all if any or all of these were borne out by experiments with merit pay.
That said, I also refuse to assume that all of these will be borne out in real life. Economists like to imagine that everybody is a "rational actor" that acts in their own best interest. That theory is, generally speaking, usually true. But there are exceptions -- large exceptions. Not to mention practical hurdles. And these mean that there are a lot of unanswered questions about merit pay, including:
-How much harder are teachers able/willing to work for more money?
-Would teachers motivated by money behave differently from teachers motivated intrinsically?
-How many more people would consider teaching if merit pay were common?
-How large of a role do salaries play when teachers leave the field?
-What types of people would enter teaching if pay were different?
-How well can we measure how "good" a teacher is?
-Will teachers buy-in to any measure of their success?
-Can a rewards system that is both fair and easy to understand be created?
-What type of behavior should be rewarded?
-What types of challenges or additional responsibilities should be rewarded?
-Do teachers know how to alter their behavior so that they will be more successful? (i.e. if teachers work harder, will they necessarily be better?)
I see multiple meritorious answers to all of these questions. If you'll bear with me, I have two quick anecdotal pieces of evidence that point in opposite directions. When I was teaching, I lived, ate, slept, breathed teaching. I gave it my all. If somebody had offered me $1 million if my kids improved, it wouldn't have changed my behavior any b/c I was already doing everything I could. A friend of mine, meanwhile, taught in a similar situation. He came in and out-performed all of the other math teachers in his middle school (as measured by student test scores) and then left, in part b/c he wouldn't be paid any more the next year as a result of his success -- he found it quite depressing that he would continue to earn only his 3% (or whatever) salary step bumps and make less than the older teachers in the department no matter what he did.
In short, I see arguments on both sides of the coin. I, for one, refuse to assume that merit pay either will or will not work. In order to answer that question (prepare for the most hated four words in education research) more research is needed.