In Britain and Israel, and scattered studies in the U.S., merit pay has been linked to an improvement in student performance. In a pilot project in Massachusetts, teachers were promised bonuses of $3,000 - and an additional $100 per student, depending on final test marks - for getting more students into university-bound courses. Passing scores rose 38 per cent in a year, 11 times higher than the state average. A 2007 Florida study found that pay incentives for teachers had a larger impact on test scores than smaller classroom sizes.
In one Texas program, teachers were paid according to their students' progress through university-bound courses - although the complication with the study was that students were also paid. But in schools that dropped teacher pay the following year, the progress stalled.
"Clearly there is something good about the idea," says Kirabo Jackson, assistant professor of labour economics at Cornell University. "If you reward someone for excellence, they are more likely to be excellent."
But it's not an easy thing to assess. Even in states where test scores have improved, it's been hard to separate merit pay from other educations reforms. And deciding who gets the bonus money and why is contentious.
Teachers as a group are overwhelmingly resistant. In a few U.S. examples, educators have refused their bonuses on principle. That opposition exists even when base pay is protected and bonuses are offered as perks for good work. In New York, such an approach was pitched to boost students' success in advanced programs, but voted down by the union.
"I can understand, to some extent, people being opposed to performance pay if they think it means that if you do poorly, your pay is going to be lower," Dr. Jackson says. "But teachers are opposed, even if they know full well that if they do absolutely nothing, their salary will be unchanged, and it can only benefit them." (On the other hand, teachers are far more open to being paid extra for running extracurricular activities, which, as Mr. Zwaagstra points out, is "another example of merit pay.")
In Washington, the controversial chancellor of public schools, Michelle Rhee, tried to sell the teachers union on the idea of a two-tired system - teachers could keep most of their seniority protection and receive a minor pay hike, or jump as high as $131,000 a year in salary and bonuses but face being fired for failing to do their job; nearly two years later, both sides remain at the negotiating table.
In Canada, no public-school teachers receive merit pay - and the unions in all the provinces are strongly opposed. But as the U.S. moves forward with the idea - and comes closer to finding methods that work - some education experts here also suggest it's a discussion worth having, particularly as a new generation of teachers move into the classroom.
Merit pay, they argue, wouldn't just reward good teaching: It may inspire success-oriented people to enter the field, knowing hard work is valued, and eventually make the job less appealing for unmotivated teachers, currently nearly impossible to dismiss.
But, as any teacher knows, the tricky part is grading fairly.
AN INSULT TO GOOD TEACHERS?
Mr. Phillips, 55 years old and happy in his classroom at Poplar Ridge Elementary School, a little west of Red Deer, doesn't want merit pay. In fact, like many teachers, he is a bit insulted by the idea that more money might make him perform better in class. "If a person isn't doing the job as well as they could be, and they aren't willing to improve, they should be moved out," he says.
He worries that teachers won't be as keen to share ideas if they're competing for bonuses, and he wonders who would be evaluating their work.
Teachers have valid reasons for being suspicious of merit pay, especially over the issue of how they would be assessed. If principals are part of the process, how will teachers be protected from personality clashes? Critics also point out that a merit program could be expensive and take money away from already underfunded classrooms.