10 Reasons Teacher Pay for Performance Is Ineffective

This article is based on my observations and experiences while teaching four years in a public school district that used teacher performance pay.

With teacher performance pay, otherwise known as teacher pay for performance and teacher merit pay, teacher salaries are in great part determined by their students’ performance as measured by standardized tests.

This is different from the traditional model in which teachers are paid based on their level of education and years of teaching experience.

The teacher pay for performance model implies that teachers are unmotivated to excel and need to be bribed – by higher pay – to do their jobs better.

This is insulting to teachers.

Most teachers don’t go into teaching for the money. They teach because they love to teach and because they care about kids. Many educators are aware that they could be earning higher salaries with less stress and fewer hours in another profession, but they choose to stay in the teaching profession because it’s where their heart is.

Moreover, good teachers know that teachers who aren’t motivated to excel without performance pay or who are only motivated to excel with performance pay should probably not be teaching to begin with.

Teacher pay for performance encourages competition rather than collaboration among teachers.

Many teachers who work under the performance pay model don’t want to share strategies with their colleagues that have proven successful in raising their students’ standardized test scores because this may result in their colleagues’ student scores matching or even surpassing their own student scores.

When more teachers attain high student test scores leading them to – according to the performance pay model – a “distinguished teacher status”, then “distinguished teacher status” becomes the norm in the district and the bar must be raised to create the new “distinguished status”. Teachers must now work harder to increase their pay.

Instead of supporting one another, teachers view one another as competitors.

With teacher pay for performance, teachers who teach in specialty areas such as English as a second language or special education and who service students in collaboration with regular classroom teachers are financially rewarded by sharing their student caseload with classroom teachers with a record of high standardized student test scores.

Essentially, specialty area teachers free-ride off their colleagues’ high test scores for the students they share.

With the performance pay model, specialty area teachers have little incentive to work with classroom teachers with historically lower test scores, or with newer or less experienced teachers, because doing so will likely negatively impact their salary.

It’s no secret that teaching in public schools is becoming increasingly challenging each year and is a primary reason many good and dedicated educators leave the profession, whether they work under a pay for performance model or not.

The performance pay model does not honor teachers for their years of service in the teaching profession.

Nor does the pay for performance model reward teachers for taking courses to further their education and improve their teaching performance, or for earning higher degrees in education.

Teacher pay for performance is essentially an attempt to run schools like businesses where teachers are paid on commission. There are several problems with this approach:

  • In schools, our “clients” are children, not adults. Children often come to school with many needs which creates more challenges for schools and for teachers who desire for all of their students to learn and grow.
  • Most businesses choose their clients based in great part on their prospective clients’ ability to keep their end of the contract. If the client doesn’t deliver, the contract isn’t renewed. In schools, we are committed to serving every student who walks through our front doors, regardless of their past or present levels of academic achievement.

Pay for performance pressures teachers to teach to the test rather than provide students with a more holistic education.

Many teachers who are passionate about education feel pressured to compromise on what they know to be good teaching in order to conform to pressure to “teach to the test.”

This means not only limiting the content they teach exclusively to what will appear on standardized assessments, but also spending a lot of time teaching their students test-taking strategies, such as how to interpret and follow test directions and how to select the correct answers on multiple-choice questions.

The focus and pressure on teaching to the test is compounded when teachers know their salaries will be directly impacted by their students’ test scores.

For these reasons, droves of quality teachers have in good conscience walked away from districts that utilize the pay for performance model to teach elsewhere.

Because formal teacher evaluations normally still play a part in the pay for performance model, the same teachers who have no qualms about teaching to the test in order to secure higher student test scores and thereby increase their pay are often the teachers who know how to play the game to attain higher formal evaluation ratings.

Since teacher evaluation ratings are usually highly subjective, it’s not difficult for these teachers to negotiate, debate, and even insist that their evaluation scores be raised to what they want.

Self-reflective and conscientious teachers are more likely to accept the evaluation scores they are given rather than debate them, and as a result are less likely to receive an increase in their pay.

Teachers should not be held accountable for student performance on standardized tests due to factors beyond their control, such as how many hours of sleep students get the night before a test or how intrinsically motivated students are to perform well on tests.

In theory, with the pay for performance model, the following scenarios can influence a teacher’s salary:

  • A high school student chooses to multiple guess his way through a standardized test. He fails his test.
  • An elementary school student comes to school without having eaten breakfast and is too emotionally distraught – due to difficulties he’s facing at home – to eat breakfast at school. He fails his standardized test.
  • A middle school student had four hours of sleep the night before a test and, although he could have performed better, he scores low as a result.

Student scores as measured on standardized tests are hardly an indicator of teacher effectiveness.

Many argue that high standardized test scores merely indicate that students have mastered how to successfully pass standardized tests rather than demonstrate how much knowledge they have learned or will retain in years to come.

Good teachers recognize this, as well as the fact that students need to learn practical life skills that are not covered on standardized tests, such as the ability to think critically, think outside the box, and utilize their creativity in productive and meaningful ways.

The teacher pay for performance model places too much emphasis on assessments that don’t help students succeed in life, and then punishes teachers when students don’t meet the desired outcome on these tests.

School districts that utilize the merit pay model lose droves of teachers which costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly.

Although some of the teachers who leave may arguably be less effective educators, in which case the performance pay model can claim to have succeeded in accomplishing its intended goal, many of the teachers who leave are effective educators who simply won’t work under this system.

Moreover, research shows that student achievement is negatively impacted by high teacher turnover, which poses yet another challenge for districts as it results in even more money being invested in resources and school programs to bridge the widened student achievement gap caused by high teacher turnover.

Teacher pay for performance is a desperate attempt by school districts to raise student test scores. It is a bully tactic intended to coerce teachers to work harder, but results in demoralizing and discouraging many dedicated and effective teachers who are already working hard and who have students’ best interests in mind.

While the teacher performance pay model may weed out some ineffective teachers, it also drives many effective teachers away from the profession while retaining many teachers who know how to work the system in order to earn a higher salary and who don’t always have students’ best interests in mind.