22 Reasons Why Performance Pay for Teachers is a Terrible Idea


The idea of paying teachers for their performance is attractive to many reformers, and even to some educators. While the rhetoric behind such a push is often high-minded, with advocates claiming they want to “reward great teachers,” the motives are suspicious. Merit pay looks good on paper, but it will lead to a staggering number of unintended consequences, most of which are bad for kids, bad for school districts, bad for administrators, bad for teachers, and bad for communities. I thought of twenty-two. Add your own in the comments.

1. Cheating — If you pay more for higher test scores, you’ll get higher test scores, one way or another.

2. Lack of Money — So what happens in a school district where students score off the charts on tests and the district suddenly has to pay teachers more than they budgeted? My guess is that the state is not going to be willing to simply cut a bigger check.

3. Budgeting –School districts don’t like unknown costs and since employee compensation is by far the largest chunk of any district’s budget, I have no idea how districts would budget for upcoming school years. My guess is that they’d significantly lower the base pay for all teachers to provide ample wiggle room for performance pay. (Which might be what merit pay advocates are hoping for.)

4. Rigging Teacher Evaluations — Let’s assume performance pay will be paid out based on a teacher’s evaluation (which is based on test scores and principal observations). Now let’s assume each district has a finite amount of money and cannot get any more. Let’s further assume scores are unusually high (maybe because of cheating). How will districts afford unexpected higher costs? They’ll avoid them by directing principals to ding teachers on observations, thereby lowering their overall evaluation. Which is exactly what cash-strapped districts would do.

5. A Greater Incentive to Get Rid of Expensive Teachers — The major problem with the way public education is set up is that there is a greater incentive to control costs than there is to improve educational outcomes. Districts with funding problems get taken over. Districts that excel at educating kids get nothing extra. If states establish systems whereby “effective” teachers make more money, and if a district has too many “effective” teachers, then their costs will rise. There will exist a financial incentive, especially in tight times, to shed the most expensive employees, which in this case will be the most “effective” teachers. Doesn’t make a whole lot of educational sense. But when there’s a choice between money and academics, money always wins.

6. A Lack of Fairness in Pay — You might not like the current system. You might plausibly argue that an excellent teacher should be paid more than a mediocre one. But at least everyone understands the game before they get into it. How would a merit pay system affect a gym teacher? A music teacher? A special education teacher? There are a lot of different jobs in a school and not all of them are measured by students taking a test. Pay for performance doesn’t fit in far too many instances.

7. More Teacher Mobility — This is one consequence that teachers might actually benefit from. Right now, since tenure protections have been eroded and layoffs are supposed to happen according to teachers’ evaluations, the only thing keeping teachers in their districts is the pay structure. It doesn’t make financial sense for a ten-year veteran teacher to switch districts and be paid for five years, if they’re lucky. If districts decide to pay for performance instead of years of experience, there is nothing to keep teachers coming back every year. This might be good for teachers–it effectively makes them free agents every summer–but it’s horrible for districts and communities. Think about how much money districts would have to spend training new teachers every year. How much time would be wasted bringing large numbers of new members into the fold at the beginning of the school year and teaching them all the school procedures? Instability in a school is not a good thing.

8. Competition Among Teachers — Ideally, we hope that teachers share their best practices with their colleagues to make every child’s education better. A performance-based pay system will lead to competition among teachers for scare resources. You can expect infighting for Title One service time and other assistance, arguing over schedules, as teachers perceive their schedule gives them a disadvantage over another teacher’s, and possibly the hoarding of limited materials. Again, schools have set amounts of money. When more is given to one teacher, less has to be given to another.

9. Less Recess, Especially for Kids Who Need It Most — So you’re a teacher who knows his pay will be affected by how his students do on a test. You also know you have about ten students who, with extra practice, can realistically be expected to show enough growth over last year’s test that it makes it worth your while to give them extra practice. Now, where might you find the time to provide that extra practice? You could keep them after school and sacrifice time with your family, or you could take away their recess.

10. Fewer Arts Classes — A merit pay system might lead teachers to consider the following choice: Do I allow my students to go to music class, where they will learn very little that will help them do well on the standardized test that will determine my pay, or do I tutor them during this time?

11. Teacher Resentment Over Kids Who Need the Most Support — Obviously, under this pay system, teachers will want students who can and want to learn. Every year, in every grade level, there are a handful of students who, for a number of reasons, can’t and don’t. Instead of looking at these poor kids as people who need more love and support, teachers may look upon them with resentment, which is exactly what they don’t need. Not only will those students be costing their teachers dollars, their behavior may well impact the learning of other students, which could lead to an even lower teacher salary and even more resentment.

12. Less Patience for Misbehavior — Get ready principals. Because if you’re going to pay teachers based on performance then teachers are going to push for an atmosphere conducive to learning. Very few will be willing to work through a student’s behavior issues if they have the alternative of kicking the kid out and teaching the kids who have a chance of scoring well (or at least improving enough) on the state test.

13. Ignoring the Lowest of the Low — Why bother teaching the lowest students at all? Some teachers will do the calculus: If Student X has little to no chance of scoring well or improving much on the test, wouldn’t it make more sense for that teacher to focus his scarce time and energy on the students who do stand a chance of succeeding?

14. Ignoring the Highest of the High — Susie is going to do well on the test regardless of her teacher. She’s got great parents, she already reads above grade level, she’s good at math. Susie is literally money in the bank for her teacher in a performance-based pay system. Instead of challenging Susie, you can expect many teachers to leave Susie alone while she works with the students in the middle who have a chance of boosting her income.

15. Teaching to the Test — Already happens. Will happen even more.

16. Less Hands-On Learning — Standardized tests have no hands-on components. It would be a waste of time to do experiments when a teacher could be preparing students to do well on the state test to enhance her pay.

17. Say Goodbye to Field Trips, Assemblies, Class Parties, and Lessons from the Guidance Counselor — Few teachers will want to spend their most precious resource–time–on these activities when that time will do nothing to improve the chances that they’ll earn a larger salary. People respond to incentives. It’s naive to think teachers won’t.

18. Going Rogue — So a teacher’s school district has mandated that she teach a new reading program, but that teacher has seen really good results with a previous program. Now the teacher has a choice: Disobey orders from administration because she thinks she’ll get better results with the old program (and make more $), or be a good soldier even though it may mean less money for her. Multiply that over and over and you get each teacher making his or her own decision in every subject, which is essentially what we had before state standards and a “guaranteed and viable curriculum.”

19. Good Luck Finding a Placement for Student Teachers — You’re a teacher who is going to be paid based on how well your students do on a test. What are the chances you’re going to let some twenty-two year old rookie stand in front of your kids and stumble through a math unit?

20. Making Class Lists — I wouldn’t want to be a principal in charge of making class lists under a merit pay system. Nearly every teacher will complain about their list. Too many special ed students, too many autistic students, THAT kid, too many students, how come Mrs. Davis got all the good kids? She always gets all the good kids. Etc., etc., etc.

21. Ignoring Parent Requests — As a parent, I want to be able to have some say in who my child gets as her teacher, but the truth is some teachers get a lot more requests than others and it’s not always because the teacher is all that great. She may have just been around a long time. First-year teachers hardly ever get requests. And let’s be honest, parents who request teachers are, by definition, more involved and are more likely to have children who are better students as a result. So honoring parent requests will lead to class list inequality, which isn’t exactly fair when you’re tying teacher pay to the performance of their students. Districts will have a choice: Antagonize parents in the interests of keeping teachers happy with balanced classes or appease parents and anger teachers? They lose either way.

22. The Best Students Get the Best Teachers — This may be the worst unintended consequence of all. You’ve graduated at the top of your elite high school’s class. You could be anything. You decide to make a difference in the lives of young people and become a teacher. Upon graduating, you have a choice. You can teach in a poor district, where your job will be challenging, your students will come to class with all kinds of problems you never had growing up, their parents will be overworked, stressed out, lacking in parental skill, and just won’t have the time, energy, ability, or inclination to help their children much at home. These students will struggle to perform on the state test, and you will be punished with a lower salary. Or you could go teach in the university town with the brand new building, gorgeous athletic fields, air-conditioned rooms, and parents with college degrees who make their children read every night and offer to come into your classroom to teach lessons in their areas of expertise.  These students will score well on the test, with or without you, and you will be paid handsomely. Which would you choose? And is that good for the country?

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