Yes to Gov. Cuomo’s Merit Pay Policy

Merit pay for teachers makes intuitive sense. By rewarding the best with cash bonuses, the theory goes, teachers will respond by working harder. Students will, in turn, perform better. Bright young people will be drawn to a profession that rewards excellence. Bad teachers will get the point and look for the exit door.

Such is the logic of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Teacher Excellence Fund.” Under Cuomo’s plan, teachers would be analyzed according to their performance evaluations and the “highly effective” ones would receive bonuses of $20,000. The program is meant to keep great teachers in classrooms, instead of say, more lucrative administrative offices. Though it’s unclear if Cuomo’s pay scheme would translate into better student performance, this policy attempts to address real problems and shouldn’t be immediately dismissed.

Merit pay makes sense because teachers’ salaries, for the most part, do not reflect their effectiveness as educators. Compensation is currently tied to two factors: experience and education level. Teachers who have taught longer earn more. Those with masters degrees also earn more. But studies have shown that teachers don’t continue to improve over the course of their careers. A widely-cited 2005 study by Steven Rivkin, Eric Hanushek and John Kain found that teachers plateau after their first couple years on the job. Studies have also shown that teachers with masters degrees do not have higher value-added than their colleagues without them. A report from the non-partisan Urban Institute, for example, found that principals’ ratings and evaluations were actually better predictors of a teacher’s value added than were years of experience or formal education. Eleanor Fulbeck’s research on Denver’s teacher compensation program has shown that teachers do respond to financial incentives. If that’s the case, shouldn’t good teachers be paid more than poor ones?

Anyone who made it through high school can attest that teachers vary considerably in their effectiveness. A good teacher can blast through a year and a half’s material over the course of a school year while a bad one can barely cover half of what should have been taught. Though most people don’t enter teaching for the money, the reality is that many leave because they know can make more elsewhere. The film American Teacher (2011) documented the stories of many educators who chose to leave the profession simply because they couldn’t provide for their families on such a meager salary. Many great teachers work part-time retail jobs (on top of coaching and other extracurricular duties) only to grow exhausted and undercompensated. And high turnover, expectedly, has a negative effect on students.

Opponents of merit pay point to failed experiments in Texas, New York City as reason to discount the practice. In Texas, millions of dollars were set aside for merit pay for teachers in schools serving low-income students, but researchers at Vanderbilt University evaluated the program and found that it had an “inconclusive” effect on student achievement. New York City also introduced a performance bonus system that was found by the RAND Corporation to have no effect on student test scores or teacher performance. These failures should not be ignored. The truth is that experts don’t yet know if, on average, merit pay works. Some studies have shown that reward systems can be effective. One in Arkansas found that students in schools with a merit pay system had significant score gains in math. Another, in Israel, found that a merit pay system led to more individualized instruction. Findings are mixed, but in general, those coming from countries outside the US have found that merit pay does have a positive impact on student learning.

Merit pay systems can vary incredibly, which makes it impossible to declare that they are all effective. Certainly, and it has been proven that, some are not. But in order to reward and retain the nation’s best teachers, we ought to continue experimenting with them until we find the right way to measure teacher effectiveness and compensate those who do outstanding work. Current research suggests that the ingredients of a good merit pay system should include the following:

-consultation with teachers over its design and implementation

-a long term timeline, so that the effects can be more accurately studied

-significant award amount, so that teachers are sufficiently motivated

-rewards based not only on students’ test scores but on teacher quality (based on evaluations)


It is harder to speculate how a merit pay system would improve teaching’s prestige across the country, but one can look at countries like Finland, for example, where teachers are paid very well and viewed as highly respected, and wonder how we could not do the same. Merit pay could attract more bright students to the profession. One study in 2010 showed that 11 percent more top-college graduates would choose to become teachers if performance bonuses were rewarded to the top 10 percent of teachers.

Cuomo’s merit pay plan might not work, but it isn’t, as some critics have argued, based entirely on faith. It does not repeat the same mistakes of cities that came before. It’s based on evaluations, not test scores. Most importantly, it’s easy for teachers and school administrators to understand.

Yes, it might not work, but it’s worth a shot.

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