Tying Teacher Salaries to Test Scores Doesn't Work

The idea of “pay for performance,” which involves supplementing teacher pay or providing bonuses based on student test scores, is one of the latest educational fads to sweep the country.

Research and experience, however, indicate that such schemes are more likely to damage our children’s education than to improve it. As one analyst notes, “test-based pay is more useful politically than it is effective educationally.”

Performance pay will not improve teaching or learning

Research shows that the carrot of higher pay does not lead to better results. In an authoritative study conducted at Vanderbilt University, for example, teachers who were offered bonuses for improving student test results produced no more improvement than the control group.

Similar studies of teacher merit pay have shown null results in New York City and Chicago. Because of the lack of positive results, a number of pay for performance programs have been abandoned, including programs in  New York City and California.

Methods that use test scores to evaluate teachers, including the currently popular “value added” calculations, have also proved highly unreliable. The National Academy of Sciences and experts assembled by the Economic Policy Institute have warned of the potentially damaging consequences of implementing test-based evaluation systems or merit pay based on test scores.

Performance pay will not attract strong teachers

Faced with evidence that performance pay does not directly improve instruction, promoters of the system have turned to a different claim – that performance pay will help school systems attract and retain strong teachers, while discouraging weaker ones. This is an unlikely scenario.

Performance pay may in fact drive more talented teachers out of the profession. Studies show that while money matters to teachers, working conditions are more important. Teachers want to work in supportive environments, where they have scope for creativity as well as rigor, and where colleagues collaborate, rather than compete, with one another. If performance pay pits teachers against one another, places even greater pressure on test results, and creates doubts about the system’s fairness, more teachers are likely to look for other lines of work.

The effects of performance pay are likely to be most damaging in our highest-need schools, which already suffer from the greatest teacher attrition rates.

Performance pay will lead to more standardized testing and test prep

Basing teacher pay on standardized test scores will also lead to an increase in high-stakes standardized testing, at considerable cost in time, money and learning.

For example, the school system in Charlotte, North Carolina, is on track to spend $21 million in state, local and federal funds to develop a pay for performance system, which includes designing and administering more than 50 new standardized exams in subjects that include art and music, at a time of overall budget cuts.

Tying teacher pay to student test performance will also intensify the anxiety that currently surrounds test-taking, as well as the pressure to focus teaching on the narrow set of skills and content that these tests cover.

As Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeiffer notes in “Six Dangerous Myths About Pay,” performance incentives not only “absorb vast amounts of management time and resources,” they often “actually decrease performance in tasks that require creativity and innovation.”

There are better ways to improve teacher effectiveness

In national surveys, when teachers are polled as to the best way to boost their effectiveness, their number one recommendation is to reduce class size – far above any other reform offered, including merit pay. When Finland’s leaders sought to improve their students’ academic performance, they instituted measures that included reducing class size, boosting teachers’ salaries, and eliminating standardized testing. Teaching is now a highly sought after profession in Finland, and Finnish students top the world in academic performance.

If we want to make teaching a profession worth pursuing, we must pay all teachers a respectable professional wage—on par with professions that require comparable education and expertise – and provide them the tools they need to do their job – small classes, strong mentors, time for planning and collaboration, scope for their own creativity and help with addressing challenges such as poverty and homelessness.

Teachers should be evaluated by robust systems that use multiple measures, as well as parent and peer input, to identify their weaknesses, help them improve, and weed those unsuited to the job out of the profession. Concerned parents and community members should insist on fair, broad-based systems of evaluation, as well as on the other kinds of support that teachers need to succeed.


Donald B. Gratz, “The Problem With Performance Pay,” Educational Leadership 67 (November 2009), 76-79. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov09/vol67/num03/The-Problem-with-Performance-Pay.aspx

Matthew G. Springer, et. al, “Teacher Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Project on Incentives in Teaching,” National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, September 21, 2010. http://www.performanceincentives.org/research/point/index.aspx

Steven Glazerman and Allison Seifullah, “An Evaluation of the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) in Chicago: Year Two Impact Report,” Mathematical Policy Research, May 17, 2010. http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/pdfs/education/tap_yr2_rpt.pdf

Sarena Goodman and Lesley Turner, “Teacher Incentive Pay and Educational Outcomes: Evidence from the NYC Bonus Program,” paper prepared for Program on Education Policy and Governance Conference, Cambridge, Mass., June 3-4, 2010. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg/MeritPayPapers/goodman_turner_10-07.pdf

Sharon Otterman, “Pilot Program of Teacher Bonuses Is Suspended,” New York Times, January 21, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/21/nyregion/21bonuses.html

Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Analysis of the 2002-03 [California] Budget Bill,” 2002. http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis_2002/education/ed_12_Accountability_LowPerforming_Schools_anl02.htm

Sean P. Corcoran, “Can Teachers Be Evaluated by Their Students’ Test Scores? Should They Be?” Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2010. http://www.annenberginstitute.org/pdf/valueAddedReport.pdf

Board on Testing and Assessment, National Research Council, “Letter to the U.S. Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund,” October 5, 2009. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12780

Eva Baker, et. al, “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers,” Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, August 29, 2009. http://epi.3cdn.net/b9667271ee6c154195_t9m6iij8k.pdf

New Teacher Center, “Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey,” 2009. http://www.newteachercenter.org/tlcsurvey/

Ann Doss Helms, “Pay plan has CMS teachers on edge,” and “Performance pay to bring far more testing,” Charlotte Observer, March 6, 2011. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/03/06/2114865/pay-plan-has-cms-teachers-on-edge.html

Jeffrey Pfeiffer, “Six Dangerous Myths about Pay,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 1998), 109-119. http://hbr.org/1998/05/six-dangerous-myths-about-pay/ar/1

Public Agenda, “A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why,” 2000. http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/sense_of_calling.pdf

Samuel E. Abrams, “The Children Must Play: What the United States could learn from Finland about Education Reform,” The New Republic, January 28, 2011. http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/82329/education-reform-Finland-US