The most popular opinion of the last few days seems to be that the primary purpose of merit pay is to re-shape the teacher labor force by attracting and retaining better teachers. The notion that performance incentives would motivate teachers to perform better in the classroom has been implicitly or explicitly derided as silly and/or unimportant.
Did I miss something? Maybe I need to do some archival research, but I could've sworn that before the release of the results there weren't many merit pay proponents making this argument. But since learning of the lack of effect on standardized test scores in the Nashville experiment, it seems to be the only one I hear.
After learning of the results, Rick Hess wrote that
The second school of thought, and the one that interests serious people, is the proposition that rethinking teacher pay can help us reshape the profession to make it more attractive to talented candidates, more adept at using specialization, more rewarding for accomplished professionals, and a better fit for the twenty-first century labor force.
and the Washington Post quotes Eric Hanushek saying
The biggest role of incentives has to do with selection of who enters and who stays in teaching - i.e., how incentives change the teaching corps through entrance and exits . . . I have always thought that the effort effects were small relative to the potential for getting different teachers. Their study has nothing to say about this more important issue.
and Tom Kane writes:
the impact of the specific incentive they tested depends on what underlies the differences in teacher effectiveness–effort vs. talent and accumulated skill. I’ve never believed that lack of teacher effort–as opposed to talent and skills–was the primary issue underlying poor student achievement gains. Rather, the primary hope for merit pay is that it will encourage talented teachers to remain in the classroom or to enter teaching.
the Obama administration's official position seems to align with that too. Here's how the same Washington Post article described their repsonse:
While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder," said Peter Cunningham, assistant U.S. education secretary for communications and outreach. "What we are trying to do is change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better while rewarding and incentivizing the best to teach in high-need schools, hard to staff subjects. This study doesn't address that objective.
Maybe I'm wrong and there are more people that would've agreed with these four statements a few days ago than I think, but there were certainly more than a couple people arguing that performance incentives would increase teachers' motivation, improve their classroom performance, and subsequently increase the academic performance of their students. I've had conversations with people who've directly told me that lack of motivation is a huge problem in teaching and that providing proper incentives would fix this.
Without more research, I can't tell you whether people have conveniently changed their mind about the primary purpose of performance pay or whether those who believe it should be used primarily to alter the teacher labor force are now simply stepping to the forefront while those who believed in its motivational potential are shrinking into the background. But I'd guess that it's a little of both.
On the plus side, might everyone now agree that teacher pay should be re-fashioned with the primary goal being to encourage the recruitment and retention of excellent teachers? Do I hear a consenus emerging? I guess time will tell . . .