Worker A sells more car parts per month than Worker B, so Worker A gets a nice raise. Teacher A produces more students with high test scores than Teacher B, so Teacher A gets the bump in pay.
Sounds reasonable, right?
Wrong, educators say.
For decades, public education has been wedded to a uniform pay scale that neither rewards superior teachers nor penalizes poor ones.
Business leaders, parents and politicians--most recently Gov. Pete Wilson--have long complained that the traditional system should be scrapped and replaced by "performance pay," which would tie salaries to how well teachers perform their jobs.
But most states and school districts that have tried merit pay have been stymied by prickly issues, such as how to account for the fact that some teachers have more difficult "clients" than others.
And teachers say that in education, which depends on collegiality and teamwork, merit pay is a proven bad investment.
"Merit pay destroyed morale here," said Rick Nelson, head of the teachers union in Fairfax County, Va., where the school board recently reinstated merit pay over the disapproving roars of classroom veterans--and despite evidence that the bonuses went disproportionately to teachers in well-heeled neighborhoods.
"It was $4,000 a year for doing nothing extra as a teacher," Nelson said. "It was a nightmare."
Fairfax County's school district--the 10th largest in the nation--is one of hundreds of school systems that have tried merit pay over the last 70 years. Most abandoned it as either unworkable or counterproductive.
Yet the basic idea of providing financial incentives to reward and encourage excellent teaching continues to percolate among critics and reformers of public education, who contend that the conventional method of setting classroom instructors' salaries fosters mediocrity and should be overhauled.
Acknowledging that calls for reforming teacher compensation won't go away, academics and education leaders are finding promise in a new style of merit pay--plans that encourage teachers to learn and apply new skills and reward teams of teachers or entire faculties for exemplary work. This approach, proponents say, avoids the divisiveness and hostility bred by individual merit pay and can help drive systemwide reform.
"If the governor is proposing merit pay, I hope he hasn't got a Model-T version of it," says Allan R. Odden, a leading school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We know how to do it. You don't use individual merit pay. If you want to have performance awards, it's to the team or the school."
Educators in a few places have begun to catch on.
In Douglas County, Colo., teachers who demonstrate proficiency in new skills valued by the district can earn an extra $250 to $500 for each "skill block" mastered, such as desktop publishing. Groups of teachers can win rewards for their school by designing a successful school improvement project, such as one that raises math scores.
Kentucky has the most ambitious statewide group incentive program. Schools are rated on an accountability index based on such factors as test scores, dropout rates and attendance. The campuses that show significant progress will receive rewards: an amount equal to $1,800 to $3,700 per teacher or other credentialed employee. How it is spent will be decided by majority vote.
"They can divide it among themselves, spend it for some school project, or they could rent a boat and go to the Bahamas," said Kentucky Department of Education spokesman Jim Parks.
These efforts represent a radical departure from the traditional system of compensating teachers. Typically, teacher salary scales have been constructed to value longevity and years of schooling, not performance, and to eliminate gender or race biases.
Schools have experimented with merit pay plans since the early 1900s, when they were embraced by educators who wanted to transfer principles of "scientific management" from the business world to the classroom, according to Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Through the decades, interest has waxed and waned, rising in the 1950s and 1960s after Sputnik spotlighted inadequacies in America's schools, dropping off in the 1970s and 1980s when merit pay plans failed to produce dramatic results in teacher or student performance.
Today, says Odden, not even big business believes in merit pay that rewards only individual job performance. About two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 companies have replaced old-style merit pay with salaries that are tied to mastery of specific skills and teamwork. "It's a substantial trend. . . . My sense is that these ideas can very easily be adapted to education."
In the realm of schools, where the "products" are young minds, not widgets, conventional merit pay plans have been fraught with flaws, most related to the peculiar nature of teachers' work.