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Why Merit Pay for Teachers Won't Work

Last week, the nonpartisan Economics Policy Institute (EPI) released a report titled "Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability," which argues vehemently against the adoption of merit pay for teachers. Recall that paying teachers, at least in part, according to how their students perform on standardized tests is a big idea in Washington, D.C., where both D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and President Barack Obama are backers.

According to the new report, there are two big fallacies that undergird the pro-merit pay argument: The first is that it's a common practice in the private sector. Not so, says the report, which reveals that merit pay is only common in the upper echelons of male-dominated fields, like finance, sales, and real estate. From the press release announcing the release of the study: "EPI economist Joydeep Roy, co-editor with NYU’s Sean Corcoran of this series, noted that 'Policymakers should probably think twice before they transfer to education the pay system that has helped generate the global financial crisis.'"

The second fallacy behind the merit pay idea is the occurrence of unintended consequences that result when these systems are instituted—from cops trying to hit quotas for citations-issued to an uptick in bus crashes in Santiago, Chile, in the wake of the institution of a scheme where bus drivers were paid more for the number of passengers they transported.

Esther Wojcicki, an English teacher in Palo Alto, California—and the mother-in-law of Google cofounder Sergey Brin—writes on The Huffington Post that merit pay misses what actually motivates workers to great work. Citing a new book from Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Wojcicki notes that people achieve superior performances when they are "aligned with the purpose of the job," enjoy a measure of "autonomy," and "are supported in gaining mastery of the job."

What do you think would happen if merit pay were instituted across the country? Wouldn't that exacerbate the already proven problems of teaching to the test and rote, uncreative learning?

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