I work for a large corporation where compensation is based on merit. This theoretically ensures that everyone aspires and those who achieve are rewarded. In practice you need a way to normalize performance so that you can judge relative achievement, to pay the best performers appropriately.
In the hands of some managers, normalization (aka standardization) can be effective because they assess and value the tangible, intangible, and extraordinary; they override "the model" because certain people contribute the magic ingredient that creates greatness or inspires team performance but isn't easily documented. They also recognize that a team requires different types of contributors to achieve consistent success over time, some are visible, many are not; but without these "invisible" contributors, success doesn't happen. In the end, effective teams don't really have a normalized model.
The bigger the organization, the less latitude and appreciation there is for "abnormalized" performance. The natural result is competition between team members to the detriment of their customers, and tension between the team and its management, to the detriment of their mission.
David Warlick used this fabulous quote in a recent post: "We don’t stop playing games because we’re getting older – We get old because we stop playing games" (anon). Seth Godin wrote a brilliantly-titled post called the false solace of vilification, where he suggests that when stuff happens, we tend to lash out, often at the person in the best position to help us. Then there's Amanda Ripley's piece in The Atlantic which attempts to dissect the anatomy of a great teacher. The premise being that there are great teachers who can accomplish amazing things - so how do we make all teachers individually accountable for creating great students?
President Obama, Secretary Duncan, Chancellor Rhee, Amanda Ripley and a gazillion others are putting all their money on merit-based pay for teachers as the next panacea. They are doing what Seth cautioned us not to - vilifying the people that can help us.
Merit pay ONLY succeeds in individual, competitive games; i.e. when you have to beat someone else to win. It's really easy to motivate salespeople based on merit 'cause they control their destiny; they can only win when their employer wins; and when they win, their competition loses.
Unless you're the only educator in the school, merit pay will fail. The community must work together to help every child achieve their true potential. If the community members are competing against each other, the one person that matters most is ignored or abused. I have written about this here and here. But don't take my word for it - check out this fabulous article thanks to Larry.
Obama et al are grasping at the teacher merit pay straw because they're not teachers, they need to do something, and No Child Left Behind tried and failed to improve things by making schools accountable. So let's make teachers accountable. This will result in David's quote becoming more true - teachers will lose any desire to play, and their classes will grow old and decrepit before our eyes.
When teacher merit fails, should we then legislate that American students must be smart or we "fire" them? When that fails, maybe we'll legislate parenting - hmmm... that could be a good thing - let's let the US Government decide who should be a parent! The one "interesting" outcome with this is when it fails, there won't be a need for an education system at all!
I think NCLB was mostly right - we have to make schools accountable for student achievement. Everyone within the school should act as one team; all benefited equally when their graduates leave with the best preparation possible for the next step in their journey. NCLB's failure is in how they chose to manage and measure performance.
It gave schools and districts control over the definition of success - this is just plain dumb. I'll take your money every time if I get to decide whether or not I did a good job. The proof of this is profound increases in American per-student spending with no improvement (often a decline) in student achievement.
What would I do? Well, I wrote insanity defined over a year ago, when I was just learning about education, and my perspective hasn't changed. Since then I have visited many successful schools, and all employ something of the approach I advocated; all teach as a team and not as individuals; and all have leaders whose very essence is committed to student greatness first, and all measure their achievement based on their students' success after graduation.