Could Merit Pay for Teachers Fix Our Education Woes?

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It’s no secret that the state of public education in the United States is concerning. We are falling behind our peer nations, and recent efforts to improve the American education system haven’t been great. So what can be done? One proposal that has been floated is to link the pay of teachers to how successful their students are, sometimes referred to as “merit pay.” Read on to learn why merit pay was suggested, what it means, and what the arguments for and against merit pay are.

How’s the state of public education in the U.S.?

Let’s be honest, not that great. There are a lot of factors at play here, but a lot of people are concerned about what our students are learning. There are many voices and debates out there — should we test more or test less? Offer more structured education, or less structured education? No one’s really sure, but what we do know is that something definitely needs to change. A big question is if we’re spending money in the right places. Here’s a quick overview on the money spent in the American educational system.

What is merit pay?

Amid a general call for reform in American education that resulted in legislation such as the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” Act and the Obama Administration’s “Race To The Top” school incentive program, there has been a call for the implementation of a merit pay system for public school teachers. Currently, teachers get a set raise in salary each year. Merit pay would establish a system in which teachers would receive raises and bonuses based upon their effectiveness, much the same way that corporate employees receive raises.

There’s no real consensus about how merit pay would be decided — some suggestions include that it be tied to test scores, teacher evaluations, or a combination of those factors and other more intangible parameters.

What are the arguments for merit pay?

Advocates see merit pay as a fair system that would create a form of natural selection that retains effective teachers and drives out those who are ineffective. Advocates of merit pay note the flaws in the current system, wherein teachers who have been at a school the longest have the highest salaries based on set raises each year, and the tenure system that keeps older teachers in their jobs. They say this old system assumes that experience translates into effectiveness, which is not always the case, and also prevents younger teachers with newer, fresher ideas from being able to get jobs.

Advocates point to merit pay’s successful use in the corporate world as an indicator of its possibilities in education. If teachers’ salaries were based upon their performance, all teachers, young and old, would continually strive to improve their teaching and work hard throughout their careers to ensure that they are effective in teaching their students. This system would also draw more highly-qualified professionals to the profession who would have otherwise been driven away from a profession known for its relatively moderate salaries, thus adding more quality to the talent pool. While many opponents chafe at the thought of standardized test scores determining teacher salaries, advocates argue that this system could be based on a combination of test scores, lesson observations, school involvement, and even peer reviews.

Those who favor a merit pay system also point out that it was originally met with resistance in the business sector, as well. The current system of rewards that we see right now at many corporations only came to fruition around the early 1980s. It was deemed unfair and too subjective by many workers, but now it’s become the norm. Advocates for merit pay point out that the transformation didn’t happen overnight but rather took some time, and now business as a whole has been improved by the implementation. They argue that the same thing will happen with merit pay for teachers — it will take some time but the kinks will be worked out and everyone will eventually be pleased with the changes.

What are the arguments against merit pay?

Opponents of merit pay argue that this system would have less-than-desirable side effects that would damage the education system. Opponents point out that education budgets in most towns and cities are already stretched thin, and that these limited budgets would make the bonus incentives of merit pay minimal and parsimonious. Therefore this system would pit teachers against one another in competition for raises and destroy the collaboration that currently exists between teachers, while possibly leading to favoritism.

Merit pay would also reduce the intrinsic motivation that currently drives many teachers, replacing a genuine desire to educate students with a desire to merely jump through hoops in order to gain more money. Such attitudes, opponents argue, would promote a narrow focus on what educators are teaching students and, if the system were based even in part on standardized test scores, would also promote a practice of “teaching to the test”. “Teaching to the test” shows students how to answer simple, multiple-choice style questions without activating any deeper analytical or critical thought, and would provide an incomplete and shallow education for students as a result of standardized testing. If this emphasis were placed on standardized testing, the pursuit of merit pay would drive many effective teachers toward affluent, high-achieving districts and away from less affluent school districts where low socio-economic status and other problems often factor just as much into test scores as the effectiveness of a teacher.

There’s also the issue that merit pay would be very difficult to organize. The businesses that give certain employees bonuses for good performance already have many of the bureaucratic mechanisms in place. Schools don’t necessarily have the extra administrative capacity to come up with a fair and equitable way to measure merit in addition to actually implementing it. It would distract from the real goal of administrators: making sure that students receive the best education possible. Overall, opponents argue, these negative side effects of merit pay far outweigh the benefits it may bring to education.


There’s no doubt that there are plentiful issues that need to be discussed in the way we run our public schools. One proposition has been to link teachers’ salaries to their performance, however that performance may be measured. The idea, while certainly drawing some applause, and some ire, is an interesting one in an environment where ingenuity is so desperately needed.



U.S. Department of Education: Teacher Incentive Fund


City Journal: Why Merit Pay Will Improve Teaching

Forbes: Merit Pay For Teachers is Only Fair

ASCD: When Merit Pay is Worth Pursuing

Washington Post: Does Teacher Merit Pay Work? A New Study Says Yes

CATO Institute: Teachers Deserve Merit Pay, Not Special Interest Pay

NEA: Pay Based on Test Scores?

Washington Post: Why Merit Pay For Teachers Sounds Good–But Isn’t

United Teachers Los Angeles: No Merit to Merit Pay

Voice of San Diego: Problems With Merit Pay Outweigh Benefits

eSchool News: Why Teacher Merit Pay Can’t Work Today–and What Can Be Done About This

USA Today: States Push to Pay Teachers Based on Performance

Economist: Merit Pay for Teachers

Dayton Daily News: Schools Push Merit Pay For Teachers

Times-Picayune: Teachers to Begin Receiving Merit Pay Based on 2013-14 Evaluation Scores

wiseGEEK: What is Merit Pay For Teachers?

Joseph Palmisano
Joseph Palmisano is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in History and Education. He has a background in historical preservation, public education, freelance writing, and business. While currently employed as an insurance underwriter, he maintains an interest in environmental and educational reform. Contact Joseph at



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