Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Theories Behind Merit Pay

Corey Bunje Bower's post on the subject does a pretty good job of posing the various questions and assertions on the matter, to wit:
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


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?)
Fair enough, but Bower's response that we need more research before doing anything simply isn't good enough at this stage. Do we need more research, sure. But how are we going to get enough information to study the question unless we TRY SOMETHING.

I don't think that merit pay is going to be any kind of panacea to our teacher quality problem. But I do know this, it will not hurt the problem. To be honest, I could care less if a teacher is motivated by merit pay, some intrinsic motivation or a combination of those or any other factors. As a parent and a citizen, I just want good quality teachers who are educating our kids.

Yes, Bower is right on some of his questions and determining a system to reward "quality" is the greatest stepping stone to implementing a true merit pay system. Bower notes that economically speaking, we generally act as 'rational beings' in that most people will pursue that which gives them the most gratification of whatever need or desire they have. Some people will always be motivated by other than pecuniary interests--but a fair chunk of us are motivated by material gain, or at least by a reward commensurate with our effort. But if we are speaking in more or less economic terms, then the market place, that is the children and the parents and to a lesser extent the teaching and general community, will determine pretty well which teachers are determined to be of higher quality and thereby desrerving of higher pay.

While I can't offer specifics, I can say this, merit pay is coming, we will probably see it by the time my youngest graduates from high school and most certainly in my lifetime. There is simply too much demand from society and from teachers themselves to see pay being differentiated according to skill and success at mission, that is teaching kids. Our challenge now is not to envision merit pay, but to devise a system in which we can fairly assess teacher effectiveness and quality.

But in order to do that, we have to experiment. We have to try things out in the real world, that is the only way to answer Bower's questions.

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