I’m probably going to piss off a few people with this rant, but here goes. Merit pay should not be given to individual teachers. I bring this up because Jay Mathews looks at the issue of paying some teachers more than others. Before you hit the comment button and flame the hell out of me, allow me to explain.
Some school reform advocates have said that schools should use merit pay programs, similar to those used in business, to motivate/reward teachers whose students who do well (usually on standardized tests, of course). The problem with that theory is that good teachers, even the outstanding 3rd grade teacher profiled in the story, don’t work alone. With few exceptions, successful teachers have a support system surrounding them in a team, department or school that enables them to do their best work. The merit pay should go to everyone on that team, department or school.
Another important benefit of recognizing everyone contributing to the success in the classroom is that it would help to break down the traditional structure of American education in which teachers work in isolation. That "lone ranger" approach to teaching is probably the single biggest impediment to improving public education. The job is just too big to take the one-room school house approach anymore. Working in a "learning community" makes teaching easier and less stressful as well.
Beyond merit pay, should some teachers be paid more than others? Absolutely! Some kids are harder to teach than others and the educators who work with them – and show good results – should be paid more. Teachers who serve in leadership positions, such as mentors for beginning teachers, should get extra pay for their work and experience. I don’t even have a problem with paying more for good teachers in shortage areas such as special ed and ESL (full disclosure: I’m a math teacher and that’s usually a high need area). However, I’ve already been through one merit pay plan that focused on the individual and, although I received the "award" every year it was available, it did far more harm to the school system than good.