In an earlier post, I commented on merit pay for teachers. A couple of additional thoughts occurred to me. In particular, I thought of some additional organizations that provide services: the government (including the various departments such as Defense, which itself includes the armed forces), accounting firms, engineering firms, etc. Any company that does not produce a physical product, or whose physical product is intellectual property provides a service.
What can we learn from these examples? They are so diverse it's difficult to generalize. The military, for example, expects every member to do a competent job at whatever assignment he or she is given. In the military people are considered essentially interchangeable as long as they are of the same rank and have equivalent training. At any rank and skill level, there are no superstars — and I don't know if there is any sort of merit pay within a rank and skill level classification. If there is, I doubt that it amounts to much — but I may be wrong. If someone knows, please leave a comment.
The same is probably the case in accounting and engineering firms. At a particular rank and skill level, the pay is probably pretty much the same for everyone — and everyone at a particular rank and skill level is expected to produce results commesurate with their rank and skill level.
One clear difference between these organizations and teaching in most public schools is that there is little room for advancement. There are no higher, more expert, or more experienced ranks — other than going into administration, which is really quite different. Most classroom teachers have no clear career path to advancement.
This differs from other service occupations such as entertainment. One starts out in entertainment doing shows at private parties and small clubs. As one improves or develops a following, one moves up to larger (and more profitable) venues. So even if one does not advance in technical skill-level, one develops a larger (or more affluent) audience. Neither of these options seems to be available to education. Education, when it involves a teacher and individual students is necessarily limited to a maximum teacher-student ratio. Anything else is not traditional education. It may be mass-market education, or web-based education, but that isn't what we're talking about when discussing merit pay for teachers.
In addition, we don't want teachers to move from one audience to another based on the affluence of the audience. We want all students, no matter what their economic situation, to have access to good teachers. So it really isn't clear to how proceed.
I'm coming back to the analogy to HMO's. In both education and health care, we want everyone to have access to quality service. For the most part our health care system does provide competent doctors — although it certainly has other problems. Why can't our educational system do the same?
Do we really know that it doesn't? Are there more stories of incompetent teachers than there are of incompetent doctors? I'm not sure there are.
Perhaps the problem is not that we don't have good teachers. Perhaps the problem is that we haven't yet figured out what the problem is.