"What teachers are claiming is that even though there is no external reward for doing this, they are maximizing students' welfare as it is," he says. "That may be so, but it's highly unlikely."
Merit pay may also encourage teachers to train in subjects, such as math, where educators are in short supply, or to take posts at low-performing schools.
Another approach to performance pay that has been tried in the United States is to award it to entire schools rather than individuals, or some sort of combination. In those cases, all staff, from teachers to cafeteria workers, benefit; the collaborative nature of schools is rewarded; and everyone has an interest in improving student achievement.
Dr. Johnson considers this approach more effective than singling out superstar teachers. "It would promote schools paying close attention to how they were doing with their weakest students and encourage really shared responsibility for those students."
In a rare Canadian instance of merit pay, the extra money must be used for professional development. At the Calgary Girls School, a privately run but publicly funded school in Alberta, teachers can receive $1,000 to cover the costs of attending workshops and taking university courses.
"Pretty much every teacher applies," vice-principal Susan Farrell says, "and every teacher gets it."
While Mr. Zwaagstra is a proponent of merit pay, he says it would work in Canada's education system only with other reforms, such as making it easier to dismiss teachers for incompetence, more strictly assessing teachers before they get tenure (awarded in Canada after one to three years) and allowing parents to choose schools and have taxpayers' money follow the student.
Merit pay will be a hard idea to sell here, but if it expands in the U.S. it is more likely to travel north. In the meantime, Ronald Blair, an award-winning social-studies teacher at Churchill Falls in Labrador - who taught his active, boy-heavy class about the First World War by running battle re-enactments in the schoolyard and who, like Mr. Phillips, rarely teaches the same lesson plan twice - echoes the views of his Alberta colleague.
"I have no problem with more accountability," he says, willing to consider higher pay for better teachers. But then, proving he earned his federal teaching award, he asks: "But isn't that what we are supposed to be doing anyway?"
Erin Anderssen is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly quoted Michael Zwaagstra as saying, "How does it reward good teachers to pay someone more because they have four years of university instead of five?" This online version has been corrected.