Putting money where our education is

One of the main criticisms of individual-teacher merit pay is that it will undermine teacher collaboration. This same argument is also leveled at teachers who choose to sell their lesson plans online. Will putting a price tag on instructional materials undermine forums that encourage the free (literally and figuratively) exchange of ideas? Will it devalue them as educational tools?

Probably not. We sell everything from collector's editions of comics to that left over gallon of paint from a home renovation project on the internet. There are sites to sell homemade arts and crafts, (legally) scalp sold out concert and sports tickets, and offer rare treasures like a first edition copy of Paradise Lost. The prices can be a bit high--and the niche market super specialized--but that's the beauty of the internet. Finally, we can shop all over the country, or the world, from the comfort of our own homes. The shopping around has never been so easy: With the click of a finger, you can find a dozen other versions in ten more colors.

The same concept applies to lesson plans. Why should we let the big textbook companies and curriculum developers corner the market? There are surely plenty of smart capable people who don't work for one of them--and could use the extra buck much more, to boot. With sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, an online market for educators, teachers who have perfected a unit on linear equations can share their materials with others, for a price. Materials are rated by users and prices range from free to pricey.

We know that the best teachers can have a markedly greater impact on student achievement than their less talented colleagues--up to three times greater. A recent study by Emily and Bryan Hassel proposed that we should reconcile with the fact that there simply aren't enough truly amazing teachers to go around; instead, we should try to increase the impact of the best ones. One of the ways to do that? Encourage them to sell their lesson plans and materials and pay them handsomely in royalties.

Putting a price tag on these items is key. Like most of the working world, teachers are busy. There's no incentive to share their hard-earned techniques, tips, tricks, and materials, especially if the potential recipients are teachers at other schools, possibly in other cities, whose students' scores have nothing to do with the seller's school's AYP. (Merit pay detractors claim that school buildings should work together to increase student achievement; financial bonuses will make teachers try to undermine each other.) There's only so much giving we do out of the goodness of our hearts, especially when we're feeling bone-tired and unappreciated, as many teachers no doubt do at the last bell.

The human capital shortage in education has been and will continue to be a problem in education. The Hassels are right that there's no way there are 4 million all-star aspiring or current teachers to fill our nation's classrooms. Extending the reach of the ones we have can only help. And I think it's high time we got over this phobia of putting a price tag on all things education. After all, states, districts, and schools all have a financial bottom line, and it's the very denial of this fact that's spurred astronomical growth in education spending for almost every year of the last 100--and will result in an uncomfortable wakeup call when stimulus dollars run out in 2011.

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