Four Problems I *Don’t* Have With Merit Pay

Image via Flickr user 401(K) 2013

Image via Flickr user 401(K) 2013

There’s not a lot of evidence indicating that performance pay for teachers is a good way of improving student achievement. It may be possible to elaborately design unusual incentive schemes that produce some effect, but such plans don’t seem promising in practice.

And even if such schemes did “work” – in the sense that they produce the desired achievement gains – employing them would still be a dubious proposition because it’s difficult to design one that doesn’t incentivize a one or two desirable outcomes at the expense of other important-but-not-measured outcomes. So it’s not hard to see why performance pay is extremely rare in the private sector.

At the same time, when I read critiques of merit pay like this from Andrew Old I’m often puzzled by them. He offers four arguments that you often hear from performance pay opponents but that don’t see quite right or that are a bit too aesthetic for my taste.

1. “I do not want to compete with my colleagues.” I sort of get this one, but how compelling it is will depend on how highly you think of “teacher collaboration” as a way of improving education. My sense is that most people who worry about merit pay leading to ruthless competition also tend to think that collaboration between teachers is a valuable way of raising student achievement and improving teacher practice. I think collaboration is somewhat oversold, but I thought that as one of my heterodoxies, not one of bases for opposition to performance pay.

2. “I do not want to be formally judged.” I also do not want to be formally judged, but who does? If this line of thinking is going to guide policy, it must be because we think there’s just no reliable way of judging teachers. That’s a pretty strong claim, though, and I don’t think we’d accept it in most other sectors.

3. “I do not want to chase money.” The word “chase” is heavily loaded and obscures the issue. By this logic we shouldn’t increase teacher salaries at all. (Or reduce them, even.)

4. “It’s insulting… to suggest I need to be offered money to work as hard as I do.” Again, I’m not sure why it’s more insulting to receive a performance bonus than to receive a salary at all. I’m more troubled by the implication that we should already expect teachers to be working at 100% capacity. I work reasonably hard, but I’m also not embarrassed to say that I could work harder. Any occupation in which workers are already assumed to be working as hard as they conceivably can seems like a miserable one to me.

Of course, there are plenty of sound reasons to be skeptical of merit pay proposals. I just don’t think these four are among them.

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  1. Posted May 10, 2013 at 6:55 AM | Permalink

    Responding to this.

    1) I think collaboration is oversold in as much as it is sometimes just interference, but I do think morale among teachers is better if we work as a team rather than compete.

    2) Perhaps I was too blunt here. But in England we have an atrocious regime of inspections and some remarkable incompetence around performance management that is based on, again, The constant judging and evaluation of lessons is soul-destroying. Even the attempts to judge us by test results are so incompetent as to be harmful. I suppose I should have said “we need less judging” rather than demand not to be judged at all.

    3) Perhaps I didn’t make this clear. I want to make decisions on the basis of the best interests of my students not on what triggers the pay-out. As it is, I’ve seen plenty of people chasing promotion who neglect non-exam year groups in favour of exam year groups, plenty of managers who set classes so as to make sure their own personal results will be better. Merit pay would make this worse.

    4) Most teachers I know in England are working at a capacity that is simply unsustainable in the long-term. Work them harder and they’ll burn out even faster. The number of people I know who have quit teaching over workload is ridiculous. Very few manage to raise a family without going part-time or into management.

    • Posted May 10, 2013 at 10:36 PM | Permalink

      1. It may very well be that collaboration is better for morale but not for achievement. But I am still surprised at how casually many teachers will just assume that under a merit pay scheme they would no longer collaborate. That implies a very dim view of collaboration.

      2. I obviously can’t speak to the English experience. In the U.S., evaluations are formal, but for the most part nobody – teachers or administrators – has much of an incentive to make them all that judgy.

      3. That is definitely a problem with merit pay, and that seems to be true across sectors.

      4. In the U.S. teachers typically seem to work a shorter-than-average work week, even factoring in work done at home/over the weekends, and even excluding the summer. Again, I can’t speak to the English experience.

  2. Bigkid
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 8:41 PM | Permalink

    1) The government has not suggested that they intend to increase school budgets or the amount of money available for teachers salaries. Therefore for uner p.r.p for someone to be paid more someone else must be paid less. Either that or the money must come from cuts somewhere else in the school budget. If you help someone they might get a pay rise at your expense.

    2) It’s not a question of not wanting to be judged. It’s more a question of not wanting to be judged by idiots, incompetents and hypocrites within a system of accountability and scrutiny that is insane. There is very little scrutiny or quality control in terms of who gets to observe (or manage for that matter). The system is rife with nepotism and is in many ways positively medieval in how patronage is used and abused. It’s not that there is no reliable way to judge teachers but more that I have no faith in those doing the judging and certainly don’t want some of those idiots making decisions that impact on my pay…

    3) I’m glad we are in agreement here. This situation is bad enough as it is. With p.r.p it would become 10 times worse.

    4) From 2000-2011 I worked 60-65 hour weeks on average. I’m sure other people do too but I have to say that there were several times when the hours i worked and the stress I was put under by management had a detrimental impact on my metnal and physical health. Since having kids I have been compelled to work less hard.

    What is nonsensical about the proposals is the notion that linking performance to pay will make me work harder. It won’t. It won’t make most teachers work much harder because many of us are at capacity or pretty close to it. I’m also not convinced that results would change much if I did work harder.

    • Posted May 12, 2013 at 11:34 PM | Permalink

      1. That all depends on the specific proposal in question. Most frequently in the States performance pay proposals involve additional money earmarked specifically for bonuses.

      2. Certainly there are issues with judgments being made incorrectly. But this is certainly not the first time I’ve heard teachers complain about being judged at all.

      3. I’m not sure what you mean here.

      4. As I said, I can’t speak to any individual teacher’s work load or to averages in England. In the U.S., teachers generally work shorter-than-average work weeks. I’d be curious to see time-use studies from England.

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