Merit Pay Has No Merit

Image "Money" from 401K

California Governor Jerry Brown has long been a political ally of the influential California Teachers Association (CTA), so it came as no surprise to some that he came out in his recent State of the State address in favor of local control of education, calling for broad goals set from the top, a reduction in state and federal testing, and accountability driven by both quantitative results and “a qualitative system of assessments, such as a site visitation program where each classroom is visited, observed and evaluated.”  This news was lauded in some education circles, but sets Governor Brown apart from other reform-minded politicians who emphasize test scores in programs to tie student achievement to teacher evaluations and “merit” pay systems, causing San Jose’s paper, The Mercury News, to call him “an old-school politician unwilling to buck the teachers unions.”

In the national education debate, merit pay is gaining traction.  Merit pay has been a reform rallying cry from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who has stated that low pay and low prestige of teaching is the reason that “bright and committed” college graduates are steering away from the profession.  Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill in early 2011 that created a law to tie 50% of teachers’ evaluation on student test scores, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christy is pushing legislation in that would do the same for Garden State teachers.

However, in the past year there has been increasing evidence that merit pay does not work to improve student achievement.  Daniel Pink notes in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us that financial bonuses can actually serve as a disincentive for motivation and work, research further supported by Michael Jones from the University of Notre Dame, Department of Economics.  Jones’ (2011) research showed that in merit pay districts, teachers work 12% less per week and volunteer less for non-paid committees.

In a presentation at Duke University on October 3, 2011, Diane Ravitch discusses some of the research that argues against the idea of merit pay.

Citing the lack of success of merit pay systems, Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt convened a Freakonomics Quorum, asking participants the question, “Why don’t incentives appear to be working in cases of teacher merit pay?”  The responses showed the range evident in the national debate and included the following ideas:

  1. Merit pay has not been accompanied by other supports necessary for improvement and is not sufficient on its own to increase learning.
  2. Educators lack an understanding of the criteria upon which the bonus will be based and therefore can’t reach targets that they can’t see.
  3. High stakes testing and accountability has been around long enough that the improvements that can be made individually and at the school level have already been made.
  4. A focus on math and reading scores causes other learning to suffer – especially long-term learning necessary for future success.

Professor Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia created a video to explain six conceptual and scientific reasons that basing teacher evaluation on student test scores is a flawed idea.

This research is leading some in education to change their course.  New York recently abandoned their merit pay system, based on a RAND study that highlighted the lack of correlation between pay and student achievement.  As budgets around the country are tightened, education is one place politicians always look to cut.  Given the evidence that merit pay does little to increase student learning, and in some cases may hinder it, it may be the case that in this instance the reduction of funding may lead to something positive – the end of merit pay based on test scores.


401K. (2011, November 9) Money. [Online image] Retrieved from Flickr

Brown, J.  State of the State 2012: “California on the Mend.”  Retrieved from

Delli Santi, A.  (2011, November 1).  Merit pay for schools may make the grade in NJ.  Associated Press.  Retrieved from

Diane Ravitch at Duke – Teacher Unions, Merit Pay, and Teacher Evaluations (11 of 15).  (2011, October 6). [Video File]. Retrieved from

Jones, M.  “Teacher Behavior under Performance Pay Incentives.” University of Notre Dame.  Job Market Paper.  Retrieved from

Merit Pay, Teacher Pay, and Value Added Measures. (2009, May 25). [Video File]. Retrieved from

Resmovits, J. (2011, July 29). “Arne Duncan Boosts Merit Pay at Teaching Conference.” The Huffington Post.  Retrieved from

RSA Animate – Drive:  The surprising truth about what motivates us. (2010, April 10).  [Video File].  Retrieved from

Sand, L. (2011, February 8). “Opinion: California education reform may be facing a Brownout.” Silicon Valley

Sanders, T. (2011, March 24). “Rick Scott signs teacher merit pay bill; critic calls it ‘wrecking ball.'”  The Florida Times-Union.

Sparks, S. (2011, July 20). “Study Leads to End of New York City Merit-Pay Program.”  Inside School Research: Education Week Blogs.  Retrieved from

“The Debate over Teacher Merit Pay: A Freakonomics Quorum.” (2011, August 20). Freakonomics: The Hidden Side of Everything.  Retrieved from


About Katy Foster

I am an Assistant Principal in Larkspur, CA. I blog to publicly reflect on my own learning in leadership.
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One Response to Merit Pay Has No Merit

  1. Pingback: Merit Pay Has No Merit | Technology in EducationTeaching and Learning |

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