To the Editor:
James W. Guthrie and Matthew G. Springer are right in concluding that merit pay will not work as intended, but they are wrong in their reasons (“Teacher Pay for Performance: Another Fad or a Sound and Lasting Policy?,” Commentary, April 5, 2006). Behind all present versions of merit pay lies a cynical view of teachers as lazy, uncaring, and incompetent. The assumption is that if teachers are sufficiently bribed, they will change.
The truth is that teaching has never been a career choice for those interested in money, power, and prestige. It is a profession that overwhelmingly attracts those concerned with helping young people learn to the best of their abilities. When new teachers quit within the first five years, for example, exit surveys have consistently shown that the No. 1 reason they cite is their frustration over not being able to teach what they were trained to do. They do not rank salary as a major factor.
That’s why merit-pay strategies in all their various forms are shaky propositions. They are concocted by those who do not understand teachers or teaching. They project their values and attitudes onto education. Teachers do not always deliver all they would like. But that does not mean they are not trying every day.
Before policymakers are allowed to introduce their innovations, they should be required by law to spend an extended period of time in the classroom. Only then will their proposals be worthy of serious consideration.
Los Angeles, Calif.