Merit Pay

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” President Barack Obama said in March 2009. The statement foreshadowed the appearance of teacher merit pay in Obama’s “Race to the Top” education initiative, which grants federal funds to top performing schools. Performance, of course, is based on standardized testing, and in the flawed Race to the Top, so are teacher salaries. Teacher pay could rise and fall with student test scores.

Rhetoric concerning higher teacher salaries is a good thing. Proponents of merit pay say meager teacher salaries are an injustice, and such a pay system is needed to alleviate the nation’s teacher shortage. However, is linking pay to test scores the best way to “reward excellence”? Do we know, without question, it “can make a difference in the classroom”? The answers, respectively, are no and no. Merit pay is an inefficient and potentially counterproductive way to improve education in American public schools. It fails to motivate teachers to better themselves or remain in the profession, it encourages unhealthy teacher competition and dishonest conduct, and it does not serve well certain groups, like special education students.

Educator Alfie Kohn, author of the brilliant Punished by Rewards, wrote an article in 2003 entitled “The Folly of Merit Pay.” He writes, “No controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any incentive system.” Merit pay simply does not work. It has been implemented here and there for decades, but is always abandoned. A good teacher is intrinsically motivated: he teaches because he enjoys it. She teaches because it betters society. He teaches because it is personally fulfilling. Advocates of merit pay ignore such motivation, but Kohn declares, “Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that the use of such extrinsic inducements often reduces intrinsic motivation. The more that people are rewarded, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” Extra cash sounds great, but it is destructive to the inner passions of quality teachers.

Teachers generally rank salaries below too much standardization and unfavorable accountability on their lists of grievances (Kohn, 2003). Educators leave the profession because they are being choked by federal standards and control, and politicians believe linking pay to such problems is a viable solution? Professionals also generally oppose merit pay, disliking its competitive nature. Professor and historian Diane Ravitch writes an incentive “gets everyone thinking about what is good for himself or herself and leads to forgetting about the goals of the organization. It incentivizes short-term thinking and discourages long-term thinking” (Strauss, 2011). Teaching students should not be a game, with big prizes for the winners.

Further, at issue is the distorted view of students performance pay perpetuates. Bill Raabe of the National Education Association says, “We all must be wary of any system that creates a climate where students are viewed as part of the pay equation, rather than young people who deserve a high quality education” (Rosales, 2009). In the current environment of high-stakes tests (which do not really evaluate the quality of teaching at all), merit pay is just another way to encourage educators to “teach to the test,” or worse: cheating. The nation has already seen public school teachers under so much pressure they resort to modifying their students’ scores in order to save their salaries or their jobs.

It is clear that merit pay does not serve young learners, but this is especially true in the case of special education students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states that accept federal funding to provide individual educational services to all children with disabilities. While the preeminence of “inclusion” of SPED children in regular classrooms is appropriate, the students are also included in the accountability statues of No Child Left Behind. SPED students are required to meet “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) standards based on high-stakes tests in reading, math, and science, like other students. While some youths with “significant cognitive disabilities” (undefined by federal law) can take alternate assessments, there is a cap on how many students can do so (Yell, Katsiyannas, & Shiner, 2006, p. 35-36). Most special education students must be included in standardized tests.

The abilities and the needs of special education students are too diverse to be put in the box that is a standardized test. SPED students are essentially being asked to perform at their chronological grade level, and for some students that is simply not possible. How does that fit in with a Free Appropriate Public Education, the education program the IDEA guarantees, that focuses on “individualized” plans for the “unique needs” of the student? It does not. Progress is individual, not standardized. Further, linking teacher pay to this unreasonable accountability only makes matters worse. Performance pay will likely punish special education instructors. Each year, SPED students may make steady progress (be it academic, cognitive, social, emotional, etc.), but teachers will see their salaries stagnate or slashed because such gains do not meet federal or state benchmarks. Such an uphill battle will discourage men and women from entering the special education field, meaning fewer quality instructors to serve students with disabilities.

When a school defines the quality of teaching by how well students perform on one test once a year, everyone loses. When pay is in the equation, it’s worse. Obama deserves credit for beginning to phase out NCLB, but merit pay is no way to make public schools more effective. If politicians want to pay good teachers better and weed out poor teachers, their efforts would be better directed at raising salaries across the board and reforming tenure.



Kohn, A. (2003). The Folly of Merit Pay. Retrieved February 19, 2012 from

Rosales, J. (2009). Pay Based on Test Scores? Retrieved February 19, 2012 from

Strauss, V. (2011). Ravitch: Why Merit Pay for Teachers Doesn’t Work. Retrieved February 19, 2012 from

Yell, M. L., Katsiyannas, A., Shiner, J. G. (2006). The No Child Left Behind Act, Adequate Yearly Progress, and Students with Disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38 (4), 32-39.