Recently there has been a lot of talk about the concept of merit pay in the educational system as a way to improve results. Personally I have always had a problem with this approach for a number of reasons. First, a meritocracy requires a metric. The metric in education is essentially a person's eventual success (happiness?) in life. How can you measure this and reward in a way that is reactionary (ie improves the current system)? If you tie compensation to a metric then people tend to focus on improving on that metric to the exclusion of everything else. I recently read a comment somewhere about a CEO who decided to tie a small part of his direct reports' compensation to a metric that was intended to represent about 10% of that person's job duties. The result was that those people spent almost 90% of their time trying to make sure they met that 10% duty.
Second, focusing on merit pay for teachers ignores the roles of other factors in educational success. Many 'reform' organizations are quick to qualify their claims of teacher quality being the most important factor in educational success by adding that its only the most important in-school factor, i.e., admitting that there are other, more important factors that may lie outside of the school environment. So we might not only be ignoring the real factors in success, but we could be making the problem worse by choosing 'reform' that has negative consequences in the school environment.
I also have a concern about whether merit pay is tenable in our political and economic reality. There are many who already believe we spend too much money on education and even many of those admit teachers are often (though not always) underpaid. This means having a truly successful merit pay system would cost us more money, not less; probably a LOT more. Granted, we'd be getting something good from it, but I think that ignores the fact that not everybody is willing to spend more money even if it means a better 'product'. Just look at how we prioritize cost vs quality in our throw-away consumer economy. This would be even more of a problem given the current, 'anti-tax' leaning of today's society.
So, I guess my question is, for those people who believe merit pay elicits results, perhaps we can think about what it is in education that causes success and how we can incentivize that behavior. In other words, what about providing an incentive to be a good parent? Admittedly, that may be too controversial given the myriad cultures we have in this country. At minimum, how about making sure we have a society and support structure that makes it easier for people to be good parents. Obviously, we should question whether it is even possible to 'incentivize' cultural behavior (that same concern should apply to the educational system culture as well), but if we are going to focus on incentivizing something, perhaps we should at least try to make it something that makes a difference.