MERIT PAY….Ruth Marcus heaps faint praise on Barack Obama for daring to mention the words “merit pay” at a teachers union meeting:

“If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well,” he says — but he hastens to add that this must be done “with teachers, not imposed on them, and not based on some arbitrary test score.”

This is whispering truth to power. But for the teachers, Obama’s words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.

You know, I’m fine with merit pay for teachers. But that’s because I’m basically fine with merit pay for everyone. The problem, which merit pay advocates never really seem to want to address, is: How do you actually calculate merit?

If teachers could get the same deal as CEOs, for example, they’d probably be ecstatic. The comp packages laughingly referred to as “incentive-based” in the executive world are usually carefully designed to guarantee huge payouts for all but the most catastrophic results. The teaching equivalent would be big bonuses merely for getting your students to do better at the end of the year than at the beginning. I’ll bet most of them would eagerly sign up for a pseudo-merit deal like that.

But who knows? Maybe somebody has a bright idea about this. My guess is that merit pay wouldn’t really increase the quality of teaching all that much (the literature suggests that merit pay doesn’t actually increase performance in most other professions either), but it might do some good. So let’s hear it. What’s your plan?