What motivates workers to exceed their duties? Or to stay in their current positions when equally or even more promising opportunities may exist? The idealistic answer is "love of the job" -- and most people who do both these things indeed love their job -- but the realist, capitalist, answer is "more money!"
For most teachers, however, "more money" doesn't exist as a possible motivator. They receive the same base pay, regardless of their skill, talent, or location within a particular district. But as insiders and outsiders have cast a critical eye upon American education, the idea of merit pay has increasingly come up for discussion.
Most recently, the New York City Department of Education has decided to experiment with a plan to offer performance bonuses to teachers in "high-need" schools -- those in the city's poorest neighborhoods. It isn't a conventional merit salary or bonus program, however, as the bonus money will be given to the schools themselves and then divvied up among teachers at the discretion of the principal and a "compensation committee."
Teachers' unions have often been critical of the idea of merit pay, arguing that it fosters favoritism and that most school districts don't have a uniform system of evaluating its employees -- from school to school, standards vary. These two factors could lead to animosity within the staff of a particular school or district, undermining the value of teamwork in a profession where it is very necessary. But the New York plan doesn't reward individual teachers directly. It takes the approach of looking at a school to see whether its teachers have made above-average strides, thereby encouraging collaboration among teachers within a school in order to receive extra payoffs.
This plan, however, may have some of the same weaknesses in evaluation as the oft-derided No Child Left Behind. How will schools' eligibility for bonuses be determined? What if one class led by an exceptional teacher performs well but others fall flat, despite efforts at collaboration? At least the plan only regards bonuses and not salaries -- which most likely makes it a less contentious issue than, for instance, programs like the Teacher Advancement Program, which institute ladder categories for teachers up to the level of "master teacher" and corresponding increases in pay.
Whether or not the NYC bonus program receives ultimate raves, it acknowledges that "love of the job" may not be enough of an incentive for teachers in the most challenging environments. This acknowledgment doesn't make education any less noble. It just offers another motivation for teachers to do their jobs even better -- the same incentive that virtually all other professions have taken for granted.