Merit pay is promoted around the obvious truth that in any occupation, some workers are better than others and, in terms of pay, some people obviously "deserve" more than others. This resonates with the public for its obvious "common sense" appeal and it fosters a useful "witch-hunt" mentality for politicians and business leaders to build consent to "reform" public education. It doesn't matter that the "real" differences in education from one teacher to the next are far less important than the real differences in poverty which lead to chronic underperformance of students on tests in the inner cities of most industrialized nations. The key is that merit pay gets public consent with a single sound byte that doesn't require any thought, but merely becomes the dominant perception through lots of media repetition.
There are numerous excellent critiques of merit pay, and yet most do not make the connection to privatization. If you want to privatize schools and make education profitable you need to break unions and you need to create "motivation" in the workforce to accept your new drive for quality assurance. You need to create divisions, so that the key emphasis shifts from equal pay for approximately equal work, to whatever differences can be found from one worker to the next. Test scores of students are an ideal lever, because this makes teachers into competitors who are pitted against one another in a “race to the top” (and from the bottom).
Like all good propaganda, the merit pay myth does indeed contain a grain of truth. No one can argue with the fact that "good teachers can make the difference". To this end, lots of corporate- sponsored research is being churned out and publicized to “prove” that teacher quality is the number one factor in school success. The research is needed to constantly drown out what everyone already knows: that the socioeconomic background of students is by far the most important factor. That is why it’s always the inner city schools which are “failing” and why they have been expressly targeted for replacement by charter schools.
Merit pay also fits with the ideal of "commission" or “performance bonuses” employed in the worlds of sales and investment. Privatizers want teacher pay to be tied directly to test scores and other indicators of enhanced student performance. The notion of placing teachers on "commission" is never explicitly stated, for as with the other ideals of parents as "customers" and students as "products" these terms are not as politically flattering to the parent-voter as attacking teacher quality. Yet the ideal behind the policy shift to merit pay is strongly tied to notions of strategic investment, that whatever goes "in" to education must be rationalized in terms of what comes out--"return on investment". Every dollar spent on teachers must be re-construed as an investment with direct pay-offs in terms of raising student test scores, graduation rates, "college or university readiness", school to work and school to future income correlations. The privatizers are ultimately going to be able to justify having a few well-paid “master” teachers who oversee or “coach” underlings, with a much larger base of underpaid workers in the new pyramid structure which replaces equal pay, proper teaching credentials, job security and predictable pay scales.
The sense of job insecurity and fear will drive wages down and eliminate any opposition to top down authority coming from the corporate CEOs of charterdom. Building paranoia about "bad" teachers in the media also winspermission from the public and many educators for a witch-hunt for bad teachers and bad practices. This is why Gates has been pushing the movieWaiting for Superman, a movie geared to attacking unions for protecting bad teachers, and portraying a charter teacher as the new breed of superman that is being obstructed by government regulation. (One review of the film warns that it makes the audience want to get out “pitchforks and torches as part of a march towards the nearest city hall/congressman/governor's office.”) This is also why Gates stated in Macleans that if only the bottom ten percent of America's teachers were fired then the country would be "Number One" again.
Billionaire crusaders for merit pay work from their own assumption that it is perfectly justified for them to make hundreds or thousands of times more than the average workers in their businesses. They never tabulate their own advantages or the workers' disadvantages, even when they come from Harvard (the world's biggest producer of billionaires) or their workers come from China, India and Mexico. "Efficiencies" and "profits" are attributed to the leaders' own "innovation" rather than the exploitation of a large number at the bottom of the pyramid.