Top 5 Pros and Cons of Merit Pay

As a K-12 teacher, you have likely heard of the concept of merit pay, which is a performance-based pay system that rewards teachers based on their performance. The idea behind merit pay is to incentivize and motivate teachers to improve their teaching skills and provide better educational outcomes for their students. However, merit pay is a controversial issue that has its fair share of supporters and critics. In this blog post, we will examine the pros and cons of merit pay for teachers and provide you with a comprehensive understanding of this topic.

ThinkFives discussed this concept with a panel of teachers and here is what they listed as their Top 5 Pros and Cons of Merit Pay.

What is Merit Pay

Merit pay is a performance-based pay system that rewards teachers based on their performance. The idea of merit pay has been around for over a century, with the first known instance occurring in the early 1900s in the United States. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the concept gained traction in the education sector, with many states introducing pilot programs to test its effectiveness. In recent years, the use of merit pay has been a hotly debated topic among educators, policymakers, and researchers, with opinions varying on its impact on teacher performance and student outcomes.

There are several books that promote the idea of merit pay for teachers. One of the most well-known books is “Pay for Performance in Education: The Debate over Merit Pay,” edited by Gary R. Pike and David M. Quinn. This book provides a comprehensive overview of the history and current debates surrounding merit pay in education, including the various arguments for and against the use of this pay system.

Another influential book is “Teacher Pay and Teacher Quality” by Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky, which argues that merit pay can improve teacher quality and lead to better educational outcomes for students.  Also, “Reforming Teacher Compensation and Careers: A Global Perspective” by Barbara Bruns and Javier Luque provides an international perspective on merit pay and other performance-based pay systems for teachers.

Pros of Merit Pay for Teachers

Encourages Better Performance:

Merit pay is designed to reward teachers who perform well, which motivates them to work harder and provide better educational outcomes for their students. The prospect of earning additional income can be a powerful incentive for teachers to strive for excellence in their teaching practices. This can lead to improved student performance, as teachers who are motivated to perform well are more likely to go the extra mile in their teaching methods and student engagement.

Recognizes and Rewards Excellence:

Merit pay recognizes and rewards teachers who excel in their teaching practices, which can boost morale and job satisfaction. It provides teachers with a tangible reward for their hard work and dedication, which can encourage them to continue to excel in their field. Additionally, merit pay can attract high-performing teachers to work in schools where this pay system is in place, leading to a more talented and motivated workforce.

Cons of Merit Pay for Teachers

Creates an Unfair System:

One of the biggest criticisms of merit pay is that it creates an unfair system, as not all teachers have the same opportunities to perform well. Some teachers may be assigned to work with challenging students or in schools with fewer resources, making it harder for them to achieve the same level of performance as their peers. As a result, merit pay can create a system where some teachers are rewarded for factors that are beyond their control.

Can Lead to a Narrow Focus:

Merit pay can lead to a narrow focus on test scores and other measurable outcomes, at the expense of more holistic approaches to education. Teachers may feel pressured to focus solely on preparing students for standardized tests rather than providing a well-rounded education that promotes critical thinking and creativity. This can result in a teaching environment that is overly focused on rote memorization and test-taking strategies, which may not be the best approach to developing well-rounded students.

Can Create Unhealthy Competition:

Merit pay can create an unhealthy sense of competition among teachers, which can lead to negative consequences. Teachers may be pitted against each other in a race to achieve the highest test scores or other measurable outcomes, which can lead to a stressful and toxic work environment. This can be detrimental to both teachers and students, as it can lead to high levels of burnout and reduced job satisfaction.

Who Supports or Opposes Merit Pay?

Several prominent political figures have expressed support for merit pay for teachers. For example, former President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, introduced in 2009, encouraged states to adopt performance-based pay systems for teachers. The program provided financial incentives to states that implemented teacher evaluation systems based on student performance data and that used this data to make personnel decisions, including merit pay.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is also a proponent of merit pay for teachers. During his time in office, he championed the introduction of a performance-based pay system for teachers in Florida, which was subsequently adopted by several other states.

In addition, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a vocal supporter of merit pay for teachers. During his tenure as mayor, he introduced a performance-based pay system for teachers in New York City, which rewarded high-performing teachers with bonuses of up to $25,000.

There are also several prominent political figures who oppose merit pay for teachers. For example, Senator Bernie Sanders has been a vocal opponent of the idea, arguing that it unfairly ties teacher compensation to standardized test scores and could result in teachers “teaching to the test” rather than focusing on more comprehensive educational goals.

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who served under President Obama, initially supported merit pay for teachers but later expressed concerns about its implementation. In a 2015 interview with NPR, Duncan stated that while he still believed that performance-based pay had the potential to improve teacher quality, he acknowledged that it was difficult to implement in a fair and effective manner.

Many teacher unions and education advocacy groups also oppose the use of merit pay for teachers. These organizations argue that it is not an effective way to improve teacher quality and could result in decreased morale and increased competition among teachers, rather than collaboration and teamwork.

Examples of Merit Pay

Several states have experimented with or implemented merit pay systems for teachers.

Here are a few examples:

Tennessee: In 2010, Tennessee introduced the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM), which is a comprehensive evaluation system for teachers that includes student growth measures and the possibility of merit pay. Teachers who score in the top two performance categories are eligible for a performance-based bonus.

Colorado: Colorado implemented a merit pay system for teachers in 2010 called the “Mutual Consent” law. Under this law, teachers who receive low evaluations are placed on a “do not hire” list, and high-performing teachers are given priority in the hiring process for open positions.

Florida: Florida has been a pioneer in the use of merit pay for teachers, implementing a performance-based pay system in 2006. The program, which is called the Merit Award Program, provides bonuses of up to $10,000 for high-performing teachers in schools that meet certain performance criteria.

Dallas Independent School District: The Dallas Independent School District introduced a merit pay system in 2015 that rewards high-performing teachers with bonuses of up to $12,000 per year. The system is based on a combination of student test scores, teacher evaluations, and classroom observations.

In short, merit pay continues to be a controversial issue that has its fair share of pros and cons. While it can incentivize and reward high-performing teachers, it can also create an unfair system that leads to a narrow focus on test scores and unhealthy competition among teachers. Ultimately, the goal of any teacher should be to provide the best possible education for their students, and merit pay should be viewed as just one tool among many to achieve this goal.


Books that support merit pay:

  • “Teacher Pay and Teacher Quality” by Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky
  • “Pay for Performance in Education: The Debate over Merit Pay,” edited by Gary R. Pike and David M. Quinn
  • “Rewarding Results: Aligning Incentives and Systems for Successful Teacher Performance” by Allan Odden and Carolyn Kelley

Books that oppose merit pay:

  • “Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: What Really Matters for Effectiveness and Improvement” by Linda Darling-Hammond
  • “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” by Diane Ravitch
  • “The Educator’s Guide to Texas School Law” by Jim Walsh and Frank Kemerer

What do you think of merit pay?


  1. No, no, no! When a politician can come to my classroom and spend a day in my shoes doing everything I do during the day, then we can talk. Until then…just no.

  2. It’s a no from me. Teachers teaching to the test does not promote a well-rounded education that kids need. And all teachers should be striving to help each other and promote learning for all students, not compete for “who’s the best.” Teachers don’t get to choose which students they get, so diverse populations of different needs are not equal. Also, I teach in Tennessee and have never heard of merit pay for top test scores. How is that?

What do you THINK?

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