What’s the Deal with Performance Pay?

by Nicole M. G. Brennan

Economics and organizational studies have found employees perform better in organizations rewarding performance pay.[1] The notion is workers will try harder in their profession because they will get a financial reward. After the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), education reformers discussed implementing performance pay in the K-12 school system. Congress also introduced the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) which offers school districts money to use performance pay measures. If performance pay works in the private sector, why not try it in schools? Well, there are a lot of reasons and I’ll give you a few.

First, schools are not businesses. I’ve heard countless times on radio and television that if only schools were run like a business, we’d see more student success. Let me give you an analogy. Let’s say I run a bakery. When I make my blueberry muffins, I choose the ingredients I’m going to use. I’ll select eggs, flour, and blueberries from local producers. After mixing my ingredients, I’ll put them into an oven that makes them the perfect golden brown. If during the process I notice the berries are moldy or the flour has bugs in it, I can throw the batch out and start over. If my oven breaks down, I’m in charge of getting it repaired or replacing it. As a teacher, I can’t throw out a class of students if they’re not high achieving or have behavioral problems. If the facility I’m working in is faulty, I can’t make swift repairs. Although it is a simplistic analogy, the fact remains schools cannot be run like a business because we don’t have agency over the product. If the schools I’ve worked in are any example, we also don’t have the resources at our disposal to ensure student needs are met before learning can take place.

Second, performance pay isn’t linked to good teaching. In the previously cited article, the authors found in higher education, performance pay increased the amount of time instructors spent researching, but not the success of their students or teaching practices. Additionally, incentives tied to performance have been linked to “teachers focusing excessively on a single test,” changing answers on tests, helping students cheat, and making low-performing students stay home when the test is administered.[2] In my research, I was unable to find any long-term study conducted in the United States (and in a peer reviewed journal) indicating increased student achievement as a result of performance incentives. Those conducted internationally found either modest positive effects or no change at all.[3]

Third, performance pay removes the egalitarian salary structure in K-12 education. K-12 teachers in public schools are paid based on a salary schedule which takes years of experience and education level into account. For each year of experience, teachers move up the pay scale. (Unless there is a pay freeze) As teachers continue their education, they can move over and are compensated. Here’s a brief example:

Years Teaching


B.S. + 15 credits


MA + 15 credits







This method places educators on an equal playing field. A district cannot discriminate against an educator for their race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. as they could prior to the implementation of the salary schedule.[4] If performance pay is implemented, teachers in areas assessed by standardized tests are at an advantage. Instead of an equal playing field, educators in valuable but untested subjects (art, music, physical education) are not rewarded at all – even if they are outstanding educators.

It’s a scary time to be a teacher. It’s easy to scapegoat us for failing schools and to portray our unions as greedy and problematic. If the people who teach were motivated by money, they wouldn’t be teaching. Performance pay is another example of trying to cure a symptom instead of the larger disease: an outdated and underfunded public school system. Do you want innovation in the classroom? Give teachers the feeling of safety and protection to use new learning tools instead of threatening us with decreased funding and firings.

[1] Eric R. Schulz and Denise Marie Tanguay. “Merit Pay in a Public Higher Education Institution: Questions of Impact and Attitudes”, Public Personnel Management 35, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 71-88.

[2] Michael Podgursky and Matthew G. Springer, “Credentials Versus Performance: Review of the Teacher Performance Pay Research”, Peabody Journal of Education 82, no. 4 (2007): 551-73.

[3] Matthew G. Springer and Catherine D. Gardner, “Teacher Pay for Performance: Context, Status, and Direction”, Kappan 91, no. 8 (May 2010): 8-15.

[4] Julie E. Koppich “Teacher Unions and New Forms of Teacher Compensation”, Kappan 91, no. 8 (May 2010): 22-26.