No doubt due, in part, to the the election cycle we are in, merit pay for teachers was again a hot topic last week. A Boston Globe editorial led with the line: "Money isn't the main motivator for people who go into teaching, but nothing shows appreciation quite like a check in the mail." I have met a few teachers who would say, "You're darn right!" and many others who would say, "How dare you!" Similarly, in New Jersey, the battle between Governor Christie and the NJEA (NJ's teachers union) raged on when the Governor announced plans to reward the most effective teachers and fire the least effective. All this even as a Vanderbilt University study reported that bonus pay alone for teachers does nothing to improve test scores.
The controversy is that merit pay proposals make sense to many in the "real world" where success is rewarded, often monetarily, and make little sense to many in schools where the variables that contribute to success (at least as measured on test scores) cannot be isolated to the individual we might want to reward or get rid of. Parents and previous teachers, to say nothing of the students themselves, all make meaningful contributions to the bottom line. Even so called "value added" proposals really can't account for everything that might happen in a given year to help or hinder student performance.
What if we accept the first part of the Globe article's lead line as true and the second as editorial license. Aside from seeing their students learn, what else motivates teachers? Our My Voice Staff Survey (n=20,913) indicates that while 98% of teachers say they put for their best effort, just 53% feel recognized when they do their best. I have interviewed many teachers around these questions and besides seeing in their answers a recipe for burn out, never once have I heard a teacher define "recognition" with a dollar sign. Those interviews convince me that the currency with which we should reward effective teaching is gratitude.
As a society, we do need to look at whether or not teachers are paid what they are worth. But that should be a conversation about what other professionals (doctors, lawyers, business leaders) are paid in our society and connected to attracting the best and brightest into the profession. In many important ways that is a separate conversation from those seeking to incentivize teachers (98% of whom need no further incentive and the other 2% of whom more money would not make a difference) with cold cash.