Brief Thought on Merit Pay for Teachers

I often find myself agreeing with Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, but in an otherwise interesting piece about dealing with income redistribution in the United States, he offers an argument about teacher merit pay that I’ve never understood:

Merit based pay need not be tied to test scores. In fact, I’d much prefer a system that empowered principals to reward the best teachers in their schools from a larger total pool of salary money.

Whenever I read this argument–from education reformers on the right or the left–I find myself wondering who they imagine hires and refuses to take the steps necessary to remove ineffective teachers in the first place? In most cases, the very principals these reformers want to give arbitrary power to determine the “merit” of individual teachers.

I’m not sure that we don’t need to consider alternative compensation mechanisms for public education, but giving more power to administrators to make arbitrary choices is based on nothing more than a misguided cult of principal leadership, especially given the academic abilities of those who’d be entrusted to make those decisions.

I can’t imagine a better way to destroy the morale of the staff at a school than to give principals the ability to arbitrarily reward some teachers. If we’re going to consider merit pay, let’s talk about it exclusively in terms of data, not hunches about leadership.