Merit pay is a dead end. Now what?

There may be a larger role for the federal government

“Merit pay,” the two-word phrase seen as a miracle elixir or poison for the education system, depending on where you stand, is back in the news in British Columbia. BC Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon, generally seen as the most conservative of the candidates running to replace Gordon Campbell as premier, proposed the idea earlier this week, and it has been met with a general dismissal.

“Far better that we try to address the education system holistically,” MLA George Abbott, another leadership candidate, said.

“The costs and conflicts would be huge, while experience in other jurisdictions has not demonstrated any matching improvement in learning,” wrote the Times Colonist in an editorial.

“It’s a destructive idea that doesn’t bode well for public education,” said Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

You get the idea. No, merit pay is probably not coming to British Columbia—or any other province—anytime soon. Our education “crisis” isn’t as large as America’s and our unions are strong.

But very few people look at education and think the status quo works. Innovation does need to happen, and that inevitably will involve bruises. There are more effective ways of going about it though then attempting to ram through merit pay, which has the duel effect of angering teachers while not actually adding more resources to the system.

One is the federal government offering financial incentives for change. It’s a technique that Barack Obama has used in the US to great effect in the “Race to the Top” program, as chronicled by the New York Times. Education is a state responsibility, but many of them, when offered the chance for federal funds if they hit certain targets for reforms (eliminating seniority perks, upgrading technology, increasing standardized testing, charter schools, etc.), were much more amenable to picking fights with unions because they could get something tangible, rather then merely ideological, out of it.

The federal government already offers financial incentives to universities in the form of NSERC grants, Research Chairs, and the like. Is there a reason they couldn’t do the same with high schools if they were inclined?

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