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Merit bonuses: Try, try again?

By July 5, 2011June 14th, 201630 Comments

On July, 27, 2010, Secretary of Education and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan made this statement to the National Press Club about Chicago’s pay-for-performance program: “…every adult in the building—teachers, clerks, janitors and cafeteria workers—all were rewarded when [a] school improved. It builds a sense of teamwork and gives the whole school a common mission. It can transform a school culture.” However, we know, from studies of similar programs in New York and elsewhere that results of such programs have been inconclusive.

In New York City Public Schools, from 2007−2010, teachers chose to receive bonuses based on the test performance of the entire school. Schools were randomly selected for the study from the city’s highest needs schools, and participation was mandatory. After analyzing data from over 200 participating public schools, researchers found no evidence that the bonuses influenced student performance. In fact, in some schools, student performance actually decreased during the trial.

In 2006–2009, Vanderbilt University conducted a merit pay study that offered randomly selected middle-school math teachers up to $15,000 to increase student test scores. The result: Their students progressed no faster than the students of teachers not selected. And last year, Learning Point Associates conducted a review of Iowa’s merit pay program and found insufficient student test data to determine the real impact of the program on student achievement.

Education Week blogger Justin Baeder points out what most teachers are probably thinking: “Teaching is highly complex…and teachers are already motivated.” So if it isn’t money, what motivates us? Daniel Pink wrote Drive to answer to that question. As it turns out, employees are increasingly more intrinsically, rather than extrinsically, motivated, especially in a heuristic task—one that requires experimenting with possibilities to devise a novel solution—such as teaching. Pink cites the principle of Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile’s, which holds, in part: “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.”

Is teaching a creative task? Can we be extrinsically motivated to be more creative? If not, do performance pay incentives help us or hold us back?

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Jen Tuzzeo says:

    New this week:
    New York City will eliminate a performance-bonus program for teachers and principals in light of new research showing that the 3-year-old program did not improve student achievement or teachers’ morale. “We did not find improvements in student achievement at any of the grade levels,” said Julie A. Marsh, lead researcher of the report to be released today. “A lot of the principals and teachers saw the bonuses as a recognition and reward, as icing on the cake. But it’s not necessarily something that motivated them to change.”
    Read more here:

  • Jane Lambert says:

    Teaching is very much a creative task–but one that is also built on an understanding and the science of how to reach the learner. Quite often, this understanding accumulates over years of honing the practice.
    That said, I do not believe that performance pay encourages more creativity or helps us teachers be “better teachers.” There are way too many circumstances that are out of our control sometimes for student learning (home issues, demographics, and so on). Even making that statement lends one to think this teacher gives up on students or comes up with excuses. Quite the contrary. A huge part of the intrinsic motivation for myself and many of my colleagues is being able to reach these particular students and scaffold their learning. Our students DO learn, but their learning may not be at the level that some bureaucrat who has never been in a classroom as an adult would consider “learning”.
    Consider the opposite side of this merit pay coin. I have many students that are natural learners and don’t even need me to facilitate their learning. They have great support at home with an enriching environment and community. they have a thirst for knowledge and their own intrinsic motivation for learning. Automatically, I am given credit and merit pay for them? Do I deserve this? No. Just as much as I don’t deserve to be stripped of merit pay for those circumstances out of my control.
    Thank you for posting this article. I have this book “Classroom Instruction that Works” in my classroom and find it very useful in my quest to never give up on finding ways to reach my learners.

  • John Dainutis says:

    My concerns with performance pay are the difficulty in determining what -and whose- intervention may have made a difference to a student’s performance data; I’m also concerned that test scores are unlikely to be a ‘fit for purpose’ measure.

  • Tim Brookshire says:

    Since most teachers are intrinsically motivated, merit pay wont work. However, I can see why politicians think it will. Most of them, sadly seem to be motivated by external goals. Money, power, and selfish ambition.

  • Sarah H. says:

    I never thought that merit pay would have any outstanding effect on students’ performance. Some teachers may be encouraged to “work harder” at increasing student performance for money. However, most teachers are already giving thier all in the classroom, regaurdless of whether or not they receive a bonus. Anyone who has ever spent time teaching in the classroom knows that there are somethings that teachers can not change. We need to be aware of issues affecting student performance and try various means to overcome what is standing in our students’ ways. In spite of what teachers implement, there are some problems that can not be solved. Teachers should receive recognition for providing students with a quality education, not for the results that show up on paper.

  • There is a lot of controversy about the idea of merit pay based on high test scores. I do not think that teachers should be evaluated based only on testing, but evaluated on their effectiveness of their teaching. Being able to document growth of each student, promote deeper level thinking and learning, and genuinely care about their students prove to be more effective than a test. The teacher will be able to reach the student intellectually, emotionally and socially.
    I agree with Tim about politicians believing that teachers are extrinsically motivated. It’s hard to believe how much politicians speak of education, but hardly ever set foot in a classroom. They hold teachers accountable, but do not understand what occurs inside the classroom.
    Read more about teacher effectiveness at
    Also when reading the comments on this blog, one comment reveals that Denver Schools are working on a new teacher evaluation that includes student input with other indicators. I am curious on how this will work or if other schools have teacher evaluations that work well?

  • Holly B says:

    I think some might go for merit pay. However, I agree with the above comment that merit pay will not work for most teachers. We teach to make a difference in this world, one child at a time, not to become rich. I can also see how the government might think that this would work. However, I don’t think it is appropriate to run a school like it is a business, and when we give merit pay for the outcomes of tests, I believe that is what is happening. There can be many difference influences that causes a child to get a certain score. Factors such as: test anxiety, if the child is well rested, if the child is properly nourished, if there any distractions during the test, etc. Some things are influencing factors that are beyond our control.

  • K. Parker says:

    I think teachers do their best in the classroom regardless of the bonus they may or may not recieve. Bonuses are not motivators to get students to achieve. Bonus checks do not change the dynamics of the classroom or the other issues that lead to success, so they will not change the results.

  • Holly C. says:

    Our state is in the process of passing legislation that will put merit pay into effect. The biggest problem that I see with merit pay is that there is no authentic way to put it into practice. You either award it based on standardized tests, which even politicians admit are not an accurate portrayal of student ability, or based on subjective measures such as principal evaluation. The truth is that no teacher went into teaching for the money. Most of us are doing our best for students every day because we believe in the power of good teaching. We believe that we can make a difference in the lives of children. That’s something most politicians can’t understand.

  • Joan Hamelmann says:

    My state is in the process of implementing performance bonuses, but they are leaving it up to individual districts to determine how those bonuses will be earned. Therefore, even though the vast majority of teachers do not agree with the concept, we are in the enviable position of actually having considerable influence in shaping how the bonuses will be determined. We met as a school faculty to brainstorm ideas to submit to our district. I was disappointed in the outcomes of this meeting. Although I do not agree that merit pay will necessarily influence teacher performance, my hope was that since we find ourselves faced with it anyway, we would come up with some ideas that might truly impact student learning in a positive way. Unfortunately, the faculty rejected all ideas that would have required any real new innovations in teaching and focused instead on measures which would be so easy to meet that everyone would get their bonus. This lack of professionalism seems, to me, like a sure-fire way of losing our voice in the matter.

  • James Lawrence says:

    Teachers are a creative lot. We spents several years in college honing that creativity. Then, once into the workforce,that creativity lends itself to comfort. Comfort leads to a rut. I work in a state that does not offer performance bonuses. The bonus program as a whole would not trump comfort.

  • LaHayne says:

    These bonuses might encourage some teachers to kick it in to high gear and improve their teaching, but let’s be realistic, most teachers are already teaching with 110% or above. This may seem real extreme, but we need to be motivating students with some sort of bonuses! Students need to get to school prepared, do not misbehave, actually care about their studies and do work at home, and keep this a repeating cycle all year. Teachers are motivated with or with out bonuses, but test scores will not increase until the students take responsibility and want to learn!

  • Kyla says:

    I believe true teachers do their best no matter if merit pay is an option. Those teachers who teach the test and not the student would be the individuals that may hinder poor decisions and actions in order to receive merit pay, which in the end would poorly affect the district as a whole.

  • Gail says:

    How do we motivate students? Teachers I know give 110% each day and parents and students don’t seem to think education is important.

  • L Hebert says:

    I think teachers are naturally motivated to evaluate their performance at the end of the day. If what you did that day didn’t seem to work, then you, by nature, try something different. If you choose to do the same thing again the next day, then I don’t think a merit pay system would change your practices. It’s your mindset as a teacher that motivates you to try, try again. If it isn’t in your nature, then extrinsic motivation isn’t the answer.

  • Pat B says:

    Our state is in the process of instituting merit pay. However, since teachers are mostly intrinsically motivated, I do not feel this will achieve the desired objective of increased student achievement. Also, I do not think a fair equitable manner of assessing student achievemnt due to teacher effort has been created. So many other factors outside the control of a teacher affect student learning.

  • Lynn says:

    Teaching is a calling not a job! Let’s use this money to support student learning and increase technology in the classroom.

  • Angie Welty says:

    I agree that there are too many external components that effect a child’s learning. The system needs to work on helping parents be a part of their child’s learning and support it. I have many students whose parents do not come in for conferences or even know my name. If parents find education important so will their child– and scores will go up.

  • Brenda B. says:

    There are too many variables when it comes to educating our children. Many of these variables, educators have no control over. We control what we can. As a dedicated educator, I enter the classroom each day with a goal of doing my personal best to meet the needs of each student. There is measurable growth over the year, for each and every student I teach, even if the measure for this growth doesn’t meet the standards of our state’s high stakes test.

  • T.J. Saunier says:

    In my opinion, motivation should come from within. Yes added monetary contributions are nice, but when a person feels like a stakeholder in any aspect of life, he will be motivated to succeed. The only way to really hold teachers accountable is to track the performance of their students in life. Test scores are only a small part of the end result.

  • Lori W. says:

    I do my job to the best of my ability every day. I want to be compensated for my work. However, I would not do any better of a job if I knew I were getting a bonus because I’m already working as hard as I can. I disagree with merit pay especially when there are several examples showing it is ineffective.

  • Laura says:

    We don’t choose teaching for the money, and this article proves that. As teachers we want to teach to every child, every time, and hope they are successful. If they aren’t we try to find a way to help them be successful. Money isn’t my reward, it’s when a student that struggles finally gets it.

  • Marci Guild says:

    Merit based pay has several variables. I agree that either teachers want to do a good job or not. Whether or not your payed more really doesn’t matter if you are truly a dedicated teacher who is in it for the students.

  • Phyllis Chan says:

    I agree with the comments explaining that there are many variables that we as teachers are not able to control. Most teachers work very hard to motivate their students to be successful, but there are factors in the students’ lives which are beyond the control of teachers.

  • Sharon says:

    I do not feel that merit pay is the answer. There are too many factors that we can not control. We need to do our jobs and not teach the test.

  • Lil McDonald says:

    My motivation is not money but the child. Each child is at a different place in learning. “Wow” moments are not just for high achieving students. We need to meet the child where he is academically and emotionally. The carrot is not money but the heart and mind of a child. Merit pay takes the creativity from the teacher and reality of the child and his/her needs. Merit pay encourages teaching to the test and not the heart of the teacher/child.

  • Amy says:

    Just like a diet, children need personalized programs for education. Every child learns in different ways, just like every dieter finds different things that work. To increase success in the classroom you need to know your kids. I do find it important to have a “well rounded” style of teaching while also keeping in mind, one child may need more or less of a certain aspect out of my “teacher bag of tricks”. Being a speech therapist, I see a variety of children, with a variety of abilities on any given day. I am used to adapting lessons and thinking of new ways of teaching everyday.

  • Sandie says:

    The lawmakers and governors like Snyder from Michigan who are pushig for merit pay have obviously not kept up on research findings which have shown that merit pay does not affect teaching or student performance. It’s time that educators are given a say in how to best educate students instead of lawmakers with no training in education and best practices creating laws that are useless, expensive, and ineffective.

  • DP says:

    I agree with all comments above that there are too many variables that educators have no control over. How can a fair and reliable assessment for merit pay be established when these variables effect the outcome of student achievement.

  • Carla says:

    I have looked into performance/merit pay some. I do not agree with it. I feel it places more stress on the teachers and then on the students to perform better on standarized tests. I teach first grade but I feel I spend a decent amount of time testing my students. I can only imagine how teachers of higher grades feel when they have to push the PSSAs in Pennsylvania. I think performance pay needs to be thought about more throughly. There has to be a better way then to base merit pay on standarized tests.

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