Merit Pay

My colleague Dr Jim Doran, the director of international programs at Performance Learning Systems, is a guest on this week’s blog. Jim has been a teacher, coach, and headmaster at international schools on several continents. The following excerpt is taken from an article he published in InterED, The Journal of the Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE) Spring 2010 (pg27)

Merit Pay and Teamwork = Oil and Water for Teachers

Teaching is incredibly complex and when we try to make it less complex, as many seem to be trying to do, we do not do justice to our students. At the AAIE conference in Boston I was privileged to hear Daniel Pink discussing pay for performance in the world of business. In his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which uses 40 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation, Pink stated that pay for performance works … for simple tasks, but as soon as there is even the smallest bit of complexity, merit pay is actually a negative factor. Although he was speaking to educators, he wasn’t talking about teaching or about schools; behavioral science says that pay for performance in business does not improve productivity, except in the simplest of tasks.

Business! Did I hear him correctly? How many times have I sat in board meetings listening to a board member say that we should run schools more like businesses and reward teachers for their performance? I always ask, and on what basis should we judge their performance? What if they have an unusually difficult class? Do you think merit pay would build a more collaborative or a more competitive environment? Etc. My questions don’t usually go over well, as businessmen are confident that competition between co-workers improves the bottom line. Therefore competition amongst teachers would improve teaching and learning. They need to read Dan Pink’s book.

I love coaching sports. Coaching a sport, like teaching a class, is an incredibly complex task. I coached for more than 25 years all around the world. Although in the beginning I thought I coached because I loved the sport, I quickly realized that although I did love the game, I loved building a team even more. What I really enjoyed was mentoring young people with varied ability levels, improving their skills, developing their fitness, but most of all showing them how much fun it is to play as a team. Helping my players realize how good it feels to work together, win or lose; how the whole of the team is so much more than the sum of the skills of the individuals are what kept me on the court year after year.

Coaches criticize their players, but good coaches do it in a way that their players know the criticism helps them to become better players and better teammates. Good coaches praise their players when they play well. Yes, at times, after working hard to help them improve, some players are cut if they aren’t improving or helping the team. That’s what we should be doing with teachers. Praising teachers for all that they do well and coaching them for improvement. Not stifling their creativity or dividing them by paying them for performance based on unreliable data, but helping teachers become better at what they are doing and better at being collaborative team players. Yes, there will be teachers that we need to counsel out of the profession because they are not providing the expertise and support their students deserve. Administrators need the tools, the will, and the support of their boards to confront that small group of teachers. But the vast majority of teachers want to be the best they can be, they are dedicated to their students, and they are capable of improving.

If teachers are coached, mentored, and supported they will do more for their students than we could ever ask of them. If they are paid for performance, well just read Daniel Pink’s book.

You can correspond with Jim at

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13 Responses to “ Merit Pay ”

  1. C. Bell Says:

    Excellent post! Will be sharing with others…

  2. Jason Glass Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I’m a big fan of Pink as well but I think he’s wrong on the idea of changing compensation systems for teachers.

    The current system already differentiates, it just does so based on experience and education credits (neither of which is a good proxy for great teaching). Read page 60 of Pink’s book where he talks about an “adequate” compensation system and see if the step and level pay system meets his own definitions of a good compensation approach.

    2 of the biggest myths about “Merit Pay” or “Performance Pay” (depending on which side of the argument you are on) are that 1) it pits teachers against one another, creating competition and 2) that its a stand alone education reform.

    In reality, “merit pay” systems can be structured to incentivize and encourage collaboration and group goals. Also, rarely do you see “merit pay” implemented as a singular change – it usually comes with the implementation of comprehensive professional development systems, data systems, leadership frameworks, and built in opportunities for people to collaborate.

    Further, the most successful implementations of “merit pay” systems we see are in places where they are developed locally and collaboratively.

    Unfortunately, most of the people who have an “opinion” on “merit pay” actually have no real experience working with it.

    We need to be asking more questions and undertaking more experiments rather than shooting down ideas on this topic at this point.

    This is about using the single largest financial resource schools have in a strategic way, instead of dumping the cash into step and lane systems.

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  3. Neil Says:

    Dear Steve,

    There was a wonderful paper written many years ago by a New York State arbitrator for a district that was considering merit pay. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was available from NYSUT, either there Long Island office or their Albany office. In it explained why merit pay would not work.

    Neil Rothman

  4. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    I am not a fan of the existing system… my choice would be career ladder .. where teachers who have proven records for student achievement take more responsibility for student learning across the school. They receive greater compensation for greater responsibility.

  5. Dr Jim Says:

    Hi Jason, thank you very much for your comments. I can see by your position and your thoughtful comments that you have had to think about this conundrum a great deal. I believe we agree much more than we disagree.

    As a former Headmaster/Director of American international schools for over 20 years, and a teacher in the U.S. and overseas for ten years, I agree that the traditional “step” method of compensation for teachers, based only on years of experience and degrees, needs to change. However, instituting “Merit Pay” to get rid of poor teachers, as many politicians seem to be saying, is the wrong tool.

    Poor teachers should be evaluated out. Teacher unions, superintendents, and school boards must support the building principals who identify poor teachers whose contracts should not be renewed. Removing a poor teacher has always been difficult, but it must be done, albeit humanely and with respect. In my early teaching career in Florida I was the union president and I remember having long, hard discussions with a teacher who needed a career change. In subsequent years, as a principal and then a school director/headmaster, I also had to “counsel” teachers out. Never easy, but the students have to come first.

    As whether merit pay systems improve teaching and learning, I am convinced that professional collaboration, along with a strong supervision model, are the keys to developing the best possible learning environment. My experience has led me to the conclusion that a competitive “Merit Pay” system, based chiefly on standardized test results, is not in the best interests of student learning and collaboration. Although standardized test results are important, they are just a small part of the learning process. The article that Steve kindly shared in his blog was speaking directly to that type of compensation system.

    I spoke with Daniel Pink in Boston, after hearing his presentation, and I believe his conclusion, predicated on his research, is that compensation derived only from individual performance in business, i.e. (how much you sell) is actually detrimental to creativity and the overall strength of a company. Strong companies, as strong schools, have collaborative environments where employees share knowledge and work for the good of the organization, not just their paycheck.

    What should teacher compensation look like? I agree with Steve, a ladder/band system, based on definable criteria, which would include some quantitative test results, is my choice.

    Upward movements in a “band” system, which I introduced in two international schools, also includes a portfolio assessment, teacher observations/evaluations, coaching involvement, parent and student evaluations, contributions to the school as a whole, contributions to the profession, involvement in the school community, etc. Years of experience and degrees are only the minimal requirements to move to the next band.

    I believe that we agree that increases in pay should not be automatic, but I believe that we probably also agree that paying teachers based only on “high stakes” standardized tests is counter productive.

  6. Jason Glass Says:

    Hi Steve,

    Career ladders are an interesting approach. Most of them I’ve seen are basically a differentiated step & lane systems based on demonstration of teaching ability – though there are certainly lots of varieties. If you want to make a move away from the status quo, but make it an incremental change, the career ladder is a great model to look at. They may be the compromise system we end up with.

    Those who know me won’t be surprised, but I prefer something a bit more radical! I’d like to see a district set a reasonably high base starting wage that everyone gets. Then there would be chunks of cash added to that for teaching in hard to serve schools/areas or hard to fill roles like sped and math. In addition, there would be possibly large annual bonuses paid to all staff who demonstrate great teaching or are truly extraordinary. No steps, no lanes – all set on a reasonable base with performance and market driven additions.

    We are absolutely in agreement that none of these systems should run on a single test score using an “attainment” based analysis method. Instead, we should use several methods including input (like a Danielson based evaluation system with lots of reliability training for evaluators) and numerous output measures (quantitative and qualitative/ summative and formative assessments using longitudinal growth as the basis of performance). Certainly this approach raises lots of technical questions … but they all have technical solutions.

    Plus, isn’t it so much more fun to do something new and creative than to “circle the wagons” around the status quo?!? People think I’m crazy, but I really like this kind of work and these kinds of conversations!

    My hope is that we have more and more districts trying different strategies and we can learn from all of them.

    Thanks much for responding to my post! I’m really honored and appreciate your thinking!

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  7. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Thanks Jim and Jason… I hope others will respond to your comments… We have agreement among the three of us that change is greatly needed…. Jason, when you mentioned well trained administrators/supervisors you hit my other concern about systems implementing a model without investing in the training of all involved.

  8. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Thanks Jim and Jason… I hope others will respond to your comments… We have agreement among the three of us that change is greatly needed…. Jason, when you mentioned well trained administrators/supervisors you hit my other concern about systems implementing a model without investing in the training of all involved.

  9. Jason Glass Says:

    Hi Dr. Jim –

    We do see many things “eye to eye” in that “merit pay” can be done very wrong … i.e. using a single standardized test with a simple “attainment” based analysis method. This approach assumes much more precision than the test is actually able to provide and fails to take into account that kinds come into the test with different background skills and natural abilities.

    We should be concerned that kids are getting better, not if they hit some arbitrary line in the data.

    Standardized tests are useful, but we shouldn’t build our whole house on them.

    On another point, I think this conversation has moved beyond the term “merit pay.” That term brings up ghosts of failed and fairly insignificant (financially speaking) systems from the 1970’s.

    I think we need to use the term “strategic compensation” to talk about this.

    Maybe its a PC distinction, or some will claim its a red herring approach to this argument. I don’t think so. A Chinese proverb is that “The path to wisdom begins with calling things by their right names.”

    If we shift the conversation to districts using their resources in “strategic” ways that line up with their goals, we’ve done much to change the tone of the discussion.

    Right now we are strategically using money for people to get a year older and to take more college credits.

    Great conversation and I especially appreciate the professional and civil tone – as you both know (Steve and Dr. Jim) this is a topic that makes people crazy!

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  10. Jason Glass Says:

    PS – we are in COMPLETE agreement that it is the role of leadership to use appropriate tools at their disposal to remove bad teachers. This should not be the design of a compensation system.

    Too frequently we focus on the tails of the distribution (low and high) in teaching when really, there are so many shades of gray in the middle.

    OK, I’ll let someone else get a word in now!

  11. Dr Jim Says:

    Hi Neil, as Jason has so wisely stated, the term “Merit Pay” can mean many things to many people. I will do some research on the study you mentioned. I don’t think I have read that one. Thanks for the information.

  12. Jason Glass Says:

    Eagle County Schools is hosting an event this October to touch on all that we’ve discussed. I hope you guys will consider attending – its free.

  13. Amy Says:

    Wow! That is all I can say. Finally a clear and easy to understand explanation as to the benefits and short comings of merit pay.

    As a teacher in NJ, I feel that iis only a matter of time before “merit pay” becomes a make-it-or-break-it issue with contract negotiations. However, I don’t believe that the board members and/or the community members understand how potentially polarizing and damaging it could be to the school’s staff and eventually to the students. The possibility for ugliness is really high.

    Hopefully this will open a few eyes.

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