George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
Related Tags: Education Trends, All Grades
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Up until now, I have stayed away from hot-bed political conversations but I am now right in the middle of one: Performance-based pay for teachers. I am currently managing a grant to implement performance-based compensation systems in ten charter schools and the fun is only beginning.

When I was a teacher, terms like career ladder, merit pay, and performance-based compensation were prevalent and I was intrigued about how teachers could be paid differently. It always bothered me that all teachers got the same pay, but didn't all do the same level of work. This seemed to be the immutable law and if a teacher wanted more money, they either stayed in the district for as many years as they could endure, or they applied to another district with a higher pay scale.

Later I discovered that this law was not so firm as I originally believed. When math, science, or ESL teachers were in short supply, all of a sudden, they were offered signing bonuses, language differentials, and hard-to-staff-position stipends.

To me, this opened the door to the idea that some teachers are more important than others, at least to the hiring officials. Conversations about career ladders, or master teacher positions popped up and then disappeared just as fast. But in my heart of hearts, I always felt teachers deserved to be paid according to their efforts.

A Value-Added Score

I have heard all of the arguments against performance-based compensation: creation of rivalry and competition, bad feelings and envy, strife and hostility are all predictions of what comes out of performance-based compensation plans. I know of several school districts in Texas that refused to participate in the state sponsored performance-based pay plans because they wanted to avoid the predicted negative consequences and didn't want the hassle, or didn't think they could design a system that is fair.

My feeling was that it is money for the teachers and the classified staff, why not let them have it? I figured the hassle of designing a system that approaches fairness was worth it if it put more money in teachers' pockets.

The lack of fairness was always brought up as an excuse. What about the teachers who teach the gifted kids, or worse, the ones that get the stupid kids (yes, I said it), or a teacher who inherits kids from poor communities, bad teachers or bad schools the previous year? Nobody could answer those questions until we looked at business and borrowed from them the concept "value-added."

In the last few years, state governments have been experimenting with performance-based compensation plans. A few have incorporated the concept of value-added education which means that the teacher measures the level of the students knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, then at the end of the year, and the difference, hopefully positive, is what "value" that teacher added to those students. Now we have something that is fair.

So I ask, what is the complaint about performance-based pay system?

As a last resort response I always got, "I didn't become a teacher because of the money. I am a teacher because of the kids. If I wanted the money, I would have become a doctor or lawyer." Aside from being stereotypical, this answer always bothered me. Why not work for free then? Why worry about striking for fringe benefits and increased salary? Of course it is about money! Every teacher could use the money.

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so...

How can a union protect a teacher from remediation, sanctions, or dismissal if the data shows clearly that the teacher is ineffective with the current students? It can't. And the traditional role of the union will have to change if it is to exist, just as the traditional role of the teacher must change.

What are your thoughts regarding performance-based compensation for teachers? I look forward to your comments.

For the counterpoint to this blog, check Gaetan Pappalardo's blog Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies?

Was this useful?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (65) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Barbara Miller's picture

I teach in a school with 36 core teachers and 36 other teachers (exploratory, special education, remediation, etc.) If the core teachers earn extra pay based on their students' scores, then the other teachers might not be willing to interrupt their classes for practicing open responses, multiple choice tests, on demand reading, etc. The school that I am affiliated with has high test scores and is one of the top 20 middle schools in the state. A successful school is one where students, parents, and teachers are part of a team, and everyone focuses on improving test scores.

Rebecca Ritenour's picture

If you can find a way to accurately measure what good teachers do, then I would welcome pay based on performance. I have yet to see a fool-proof way to do this (or at least a system that accounts for things NOT in the teacher's control). I once offered this argument in a newspaper editorial on this subject: Let's assume that I'm a medical doctor doing general practitioner work. One of my patients comes to me and he is clearly morbidly obese. I sit down with him, explain the consequences his weight will have on his body, recommend various tests that he should have done, map out a healthy living plan with him, and then ask to see him again in a month. As soon as he leaves my office, he tosses the plan in the trash and heads out to eat 2 double bacon cheeseburgers with a large side of fries and a full-fat milkshake to wash it all down. Am I then, as the medical doctor in charge of his treatment, to be held responsible if the patient chooses NOT to take the advice? Perhaps that patient is not READY for my advice at this stage in his life. Perhaps he will NEVER be ready despite all my ways of attempting to get him interested and motivated. Should I then be paid for his weight loss or lack thereof? What if something I say today comes back to him in a few years but he's moved to another state? Do I get paid for helping him or does his current doctor? There is much about teaching that is intangible and unquantifiable. I do want to be paid what I'm worth and I don't like the current standard of paying teachers based on years of service. I just have yet to see a fair method of merit based pay.

Dave's picture

Read Diane Ravitch's book and you'll begin to understand why performance pay is bad for public education, as well as why charter schools are too.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Several of you have used the old cart and horse illustration to decry performance based pay systems.

I thought I made it clear that the program I am involved in is a performance based "bonus" system. The teachers still get their normally low salaries, but they get a bonus if they can inspire their students to perform at higher levels and if they can meet high professional standards. Many of you are making it sound that if one of the students doesn't make the improvements, the teacher will not get paid at all.

The so called "cart" is not before the so called "horse" because we have had standardized testing for more than 30 years, the "horse" is clearly in front. Holy heck is being raised just because a teacher is now associated with the scores that his students produced on those standardized tests. The "common sense" you talk about, dictates that students in a bad teacher's classroom will have poor test scores, while those in a good teacher's class will have better test scores. The bad teachers claim that no-one could raise their student's test scores because their students have so many pre-existing conditions--bad or missing parents, poverty, ethnic deprivation, poor prior education, special education, lack of motivation and it goes on and on. Therefore, they believe that it is not fair to judge them by the luck of the draw, when some teachers get all the "good" "smart" "non-subgroup" students.

"Foul!", "Not Fair!", "Bad Form!" are the battle cries. What is so wrong with incentivizing teachers to want to get their students to learn more? There are no penalties to a performance based "bonus" system, except if the teacher is doing a lousy job, they get fired in non union states. But if the teacher commits to excellence in their own performance and does whatever it takes to help their students, why shouldn't those exceptional teachers be rewarded? We need more exceptional teachers, not less!

In the system I am espousing, not only do teachers get a bonus for outstanding performance, but all teachers also receive intensive training on how to improve their skills as teachers in the best possible way--teacher collaboration in a professional learning community. They teach each other, they practice and they perfect their skills together. By helping each other, all students benefit and all teachers benefit from bonuses. They are incentivized to eliminate teacher isolation and share their expertise, skills and wisdom.

The role of the administrator changes too. The administrator is not the bad-guy coming to catch you do something wrong. The teachers receive three observations a year, one from the administrator and two from fellow teachers. The formally summative teacher evaluation becomes formative and teachers can and are expected to improve from the feedback they receive. Not only this, the average of the scores is what the teachers are "evaluated" upon.

Students are the winners in this system--they get better instruction.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching


I certainly like what you wrote in your original post, as well as your response. I think your comment, "not only do teachers get a bonus for outstanding performance, but all teachers also receive intensive training on how to improve their skills as teachers in the best possible way--teacher collaboration in a professional learning community," makes the most sense. If teacher is a learner, then the role of administrator will shift more from evaluation to supervision of a formative-oriented process. These changes would be good news for our profession.

I fear that any type of pay linked to performance smells really corporate and will not create the incentives we hope for. (See Daniel Pink's book Drive, Drive 3.0 vs. 2.0) I think we want to strive for Drive 3.0, teachers improving because they implicitly want to do the best job for students as possible. Weed out those who aren't motivated in this way.

It still doesn't address the low compensation for educators. We need to change that universally. We need quality teachers receiving quality pay regardless of how their students do. First, test scores are a POOR indicator of quality teaching. There is no convincing data that demonstrates this. Even the VAM approach is totally flawed. See my blog posts:


In conclusion, I do agree with most of your points. I would just get to the same finish line along a different path.

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

Andrew Walanski's picture

1. Teachers don't need incentives to want to get their students to learn more.
2. What if a teacher or an entire school follows the system you describe and "commits to excellence in their own performance and does whatever it takes to help their students" yet the value-added score does not reflect that?
3. You never mentioned anything about PLCs, teacher training, changing the role of the administrator, etc in your original post. You also are claiming this will be an outcome of this type of system without explaining how that is going to happen. Why does an incentive system = these changes? If an administrator's performance pay is based on their teachers' performance why would they all of a sudden decide to stop being the "bad-guy coming to get you?"
4. Shouldn't these instructional leadership/training programs be taking place under ANY system?
5. You still are espousing a system where the logic is "here's your extremely low wage for the work you, maybe if you can do this we'll give you some more money." Not the friendliest of systems.
6. You still are ignoring the science of motivation and basic human nature. Many studies have shown that incentives such as these do not work. There are also studies that have shown that teaching to the test and focusing on the test instead of the concepts result in lower performance on the test. Is it not logical to conclude that a system like this will result in more teaching to the test?
7. Why do standardized tests frequently assess rote memorization instead of critical thinking skills? How much merit should we actually put in these tests? Even the AP program has stated it needs to shift their tests' emphasis.
8. I don't think anyone here--at least anyone who should actually be in education--would argue they do not want to get the best out of their students and provide them with the best education possible. I just don't think this system would do it.

Dave Holland's picture

Our school system has said they will implement a performance-based system in the next couple of years. The big question is how will they determine your performance???? Will it be fair when measuring student progress and growth? I am Ok with the idea if it truly measures student progress and growth. I did not go into education for the money, but we do need to get rid of ineffective teachers. The students deserve that.

Mark Stamper's picture

I have seen what I assume are the unintended consequences of NCLB: endless testing that interrupts class schedules and the time pressures placed on counselors and administration. However, I have also seen tests produce valuable data by which school administrators can plan how to best support students through targeted teaching and intervention. My point is that pressure is not necessarily bad and actually can be very beneficial. Second, not all teachers are "very motivated to improve." I have worked with many teachers who just exist within the teaching system to be paid and to retire. Their colleagues, students, and community members testify to this observation. By implementing a performance-based system, one might not necessarily be able to change those teachers who are not motivated. However, one can fairly reward those teachers who word hard in instructing students. I do believe that a district should give careful attention to how they implement a performance-based system because some teacher may be excellent but may also have students who resist all motivation to learn. Teachers in this situation should not be penalized for these types of students.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely's work ( education interview at: ) on motivation is instructive as is this:( ) by Bruce Baker. The probability of firing the wrong person is such that that I doubt a district lawyer would allow it after reading relevant articles. In effect, Ariely's work weakens the relationship and the statistics bury it. That won't stop Governor Rick Scott of Florida from implementing it in his education reform package; but that's my problem.

I would also point out that much of what passes for data is anecdote in the school reform movement. The attitude of an individual toward her work changes depending on conditions. Conditions change radically from one semester to another, jobs change dramatically. The competence of scheduling varies and affects working conditions as well. Do we discuss this? Do we measure it? And yet we are willing to fire an employee who is not cheerful and above all compliant no matter how much variation we throw at her.

Johnson't argument is not sound because rigor is absent in the decisionmaking process he suggests.

Audrey's picture

The way that you claim value added would be determined is by taking tests at the beginning and end of the year. Testing has its own accompanying set of problems to deal with. For one, who will write the test? The teacher can't write it or they will make the pre-test very difficult while making the post-test very easy. If, on the other hand, there is a standard test of what every teacher should be teaching, such as those used for state benchmark assessments, the teachers will know what will be important for the students to learn. They will focus their entire year in the classroom on the material that will be on the test. In my experience as a student I have had good teachers and bad teachers. Those teachers who avoid answering a question asked by a student with the excuse, "don't worry, it won't be on a test," are not on my list of good teachers. Success in life comes through being curious and asking questions. If students are discouraged from asking questions because "it won't be on the test," they will stop asking questions in all areas of life. Teachers who truly want their students to succeed in life will drive that curiosity rather than suppressing it. Teachers who truly want their students to succeed will not teach student just to do well on tests because their true benefit comes from seeing their students succeed in life, not on a test that determines the teacher's pay.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.