As most people in the private sector understand, merit pay is essential to quality performance. Americans expect to be rewarded for hard work, and they expect people to work harder with the thought of such a reward in mind.
That principle should apply to public school teaching, as well. Merit pay is one way to give the best teachers more money, which ultimately will serve as an incentive for the best and brightest to enter the field. But it has to be done in the right way.
The Utah Legislature has funded a pilot program among several schools in the state, trying to find the best way to administer a merit system. In any profession, merit pay is contentious. There is no single defining way to calculate whether someone is a valuable behind-the-scenes contributor or a slacker who has mastered the art of appearing busy. But a good boss knows.
Some of the Utah schools participating in this program have developed formulas that take into account student test scores, evaluations from students and parents and the teacher's own efforts to attend conferences, seminars and obtain higher levels of training. These are good ideas. No one test or evaluation should be the deciding factor, otherwise teachers might be tempted to skew their own efforts for favorable results.
But what we're wondering is, where are the bosses?
If Utah really wants to set up a public education system that is accountable, school principals would have the final say as to who receives merit pay. All other criteria could be filed as justifications for that decision, but any good principal would know who his or her best teachers are, as well as the ones who need improvement. Then, principals themselves could be judged based on how well their schools perform. As in any business, people up and down the chain of command should be accountable.
Utah isn't the only state struggling to define a merit-pay system. Many states are going through the same thing, especially now that teachers' unions have warmed up to the idea. But if Utah does it right, it could be a model for everyone else, and it could see its own education system improve with limited resources.