Merit Pay: A Costly and Ineffective Initiative

Those who believe in the reward/punishment model (nearly everybody) are often attracted to the simplistic notion of giving merit pay to teachers whose students do well on standardized tests. I say “simplistic” for several reasons:
1. Standardized tests don’t necessarily measure what has been learned. Sure, they are easy to score, but don’t assume that just because data is derived that the data is useful or relevant. Standardized tests are flawed instruments.
2. I spent a number of years in the classroom. I remember one year in particular when I was blessed with five classes of engaged, hard-working students who were very conscientious. They learned a lot (and did well on the standardized tests we administered.) I remember a couple of other years when I had particularly difficult groups. They didn’t perform as well. My teaching was not substantially different, but the test scores were significantly different. Advocates of merit pay seem to miss this fundamental reality, one that every classroom teacher understands.
3. Standardized tests don’t measure what is most important in the education of our children. As both a parent and an educator, I want students to develop a work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and a social conscience. None of those are measured by the standardized tests in favor with the merit pay crowd.

The folly of merit pay was nicely captured by Daniel Barth in “Measuring Merit in the Classroom.” Soon after Dr. Barth shared his thoughts, The USA Today published an article entitled “Merit Pay Study: Teacher Bonuses Don’t Raise Student Test Scores.” It seems that arguments grounded in philosophy – like mine and those of Dr. Barth – are supported by the research conducted at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. Nearly 300 teachers in Nashville, Tennessee participated in a study that looked at the impact of merit pay over a three-year period. Teachers were able to earn an additional $15,000 – no small incentive.

The results? Except for some temporary improvement by students in the fifth grade (which disappeared a year later!), the article concludes, “Offering middle-school math teachers bonuses up to $15,000 did not produce gains in student test scores.”

Not surprisingly, this hard data did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for merit pay by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Those who clamor for merit pay simply won’t accept that it doesn’t enhance student learning. This “common sense” notion is based on the erroneous belief that workers are motivated primarily by money. As I say on page 10 of Managing to Inspire: Bringing Out the Best in Those You Supervise, “People don’t just work for pay – a point that is lost on those who create elaborate incentive programs for high-performing employees.”

While additional research is needed, it is becoming increasingly clear that offering merit pay to teachers is expensive and based on an unwarranted belief in the infallibility of standardized tests. It doesn’t lead to increased learning. It does little more than squander money while pitting teacher against teacher. Surely, there is a better way.

Bob’s latest book now available on Amazon!

About the author -

Bob Sullo

Bob has been an English teacher, school psychologist, school adjustment counselor, and school administrator. Now he is a full time consultant. Bob has written several books about internal control and motivation including, The Inspiring Teacher, Activating the Desire to Learn and The Motivated Student. You can read Bob’s full bio here. Learn more about Bob and his work by visiting his website,

One Response to Merit Pay: A Costly and Ineffective Initiative

  1. Matheus says:

    Working everyday with real ceildrhn, not number, leaves me with a sense of At what point did we as educators and a nation get side- tracted from ceildrhn centered? All I hear is remediation, growth, data driven, move up scores! Daily I have real experiences of looking into the eyes of ceildrhn without a number burned into their brows. Many haven’t achieved passing a landmark set by some unknown being foreign to what humans experience in schools. Growth is when a child sitting in the mist of other fourth graders whispers to her teacher (me) I have a secret to tell you. But you cannot tell anyone else. I cant’t read! Observing her reaction when we first opened the text book I knew there was a problem. She and I worked hard this year but I have 63 important real ceildrhn daily entering and leaving our classroom doors. All different important and needy in different ways. On paper each represents a fraction: some will increase scores, others increase composite numbers. Both students and me as a teacher are graded for me, the threat of loosing a job I spent seven years as a student to earn and keep a committment of remaing a life-time learner. When I stop growing so will my students. From a student’s position WOW I passed this one! or defeat and lose of self confidence. What I spend months striving to develop one test crashes. I am not the most intelligent person in education, only a teacher whose opinion is not valued, ceildrhn are dropping out of school as a way to hold on to what diginity is left after years of failure. If the higher being who rate education, students, and educators as failures or high achievers, would use drop out data, conduct focused surveys, and analyze the results a light bulb would enlignten society as to what we are doing. Wheels are in motion by fifth or sixth grade resulting in a STOP sign honored as rapidly as possible. Drugs, street gangs, jobless citizens replace classrooms. But then again what bussiness person will return daily to a place where they are labeled as failures? Not every child or adult was meant to get a college education: elementary and high school a must, and developing citizens imperative! College is a place to receive training for specialized job credentials necessary to apply for a position. As a high school drop out many years ago I experienced feelins of failure and an unforefilled dream of becoming a teacher. After years of what others labeled as asuccessful life, by my standards I remained a failure. It took years to become a risk taker, enroll as a non-traditional student , and pay every dime to find the pot of gold at my rainbow. Five degrees and obtaining National Certifiction have zero value when student performance scores label me as Great, OK, or Underachiever . Those labels have an impact on how I view myself: I am an adult whose dream was fulfilled it is easy to connect with ceildrhn. It was, and is, my goal to help ceildrhn and young adults become educated that is if analyzing score results provide evidence I should remain an educator. One after thought even that is an invalid indicator: many students are listed on my classroom roster whom I never never teach (Exceptional Ed.). Why are we allowing American to judge people, including our ceildrhn, as successful or failures based on numbers. Our great nation was not founded and developed into a world power by loosing respect for humans. Compassion is alive except for our American citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *