Alternatives to merit pay

Better alternatives to merit pay

A newly released report published by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice highlights incentives that can be much more effective in keeping good teachers in the classroom than traditional merit pay programs that reward teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores, which do little to improve student achievement or help to attract and retain good teachers in high-need areas.

“What most teachers desire is the know-how to teach their subjects as well as the autonomy and supports to best meet the needs of their students,” according to the report by Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, and Jonathan Eckert, an education professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and former Teaching Ambassador at the U.S. Department of Education.

Berry and Eckert’s report notes several examples of merit pay’s failure to improve education or retain good teachers, including programs in Nashville and New York City. A voluntary merit pay program in Nashville that provided up to $15,000 in bonuses for teachers had little-to-no impact on student performance. The program didn’t help retain teachers, either: About half of the teachers who volunteered for the program left within three years. Pay incentives also failed to improve student performance, despite a $56 million merit pay program in New York City. Teachers there reported that the bonuses were “a reward for their usual efforts, not as an incentive for changing their behavior.”

Effectively addressing the conditions that the best teachers want and need will go a long way toward supporting their professional activities and retaining them — particularly in high-need schools, according to the report.

Berry and Eckert say policymakers should focus on the conditions that improve effective teaching, including:

  • Principals who cultivate and embrace teacher leadership
  • Time and tools for teachers to learn from one another, instead of competing with their colleagues
  • Specialized resources for high-need schools, students and subjects
  • The elimination of out-of-field teaching assignments
  • Teaching loads that take the diversity of students into account
  • Leeway to take risks
  • Integration of academic, social and health services for students
  • Safe, well-maintained school buildings

Instead of continuing to implement simplistic and ineffective reforms, policymakers should embrace real solutions to attract and retain talented teachers so our children can succeed in college and the workplace. Our children deserve nothing less than proposals that actually do good.

To read Berry and Eckert’s full report and recommendations, go to


General Merit Pay

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