The Theoretical Merit of Teacher Merit Pay

Subject: Education
Pages: 6
Words: 1693
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: PhD


Programs aimed at improving the quality of US education have always attracted a lot of attention. The District Awards for Teacher Excellence (also referred to as the DATE) plan is one such program as it has been a topic of debate during all stages of its existence. Policymakers developed the plan that was based on quite extensive research showing certain benefits of merit pays for teachers.

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The major goal of the plan was threefold as the incentive was to improve students’ performance, decrease teachers’ turnover and attract inspiring teachers (Rochester, 2013). However, the program was not lasting as it came to an end after significant budget cuts. Stutz (2013) argues that the incentive never had a chance to go through an appropriate evaluation process and financing stopped due to financial constraints rather than the program’s failure. Though the incentive lasted a few years, it is still possible to identify its effectiveness through evaluating the impact it had during such a short period.

Policy Formation and Scale

Programs that presupposed additional payments to high-performing teachers have been appearing for decades. A new interest in this incentive arose at the end of the 2000s when policymakers attempted to improve quality of the US education. There were different views on such incentives and people could not agree on the way to assign extra payment. For instance, some argued that skill-based (or knowledge-based) merit would be effective while others advocated performance-based awards.

Coulson (2010) notes that public schools unions highly opposed performance-based awards while public opinion seemed to support this approach. Unions were against additional payments and focused on the need to raise teachers’ salaries to attract new people to the profession and encourage teachers to work harder. Officials also noted that teachers’ salaries were based on numerous factors and there was already certain differentiation between proper and inappropriate performance.

Proponents of the DATE, however, stressed that there was a need to award more effective educators to encourage their self-development. Supporters of the incentive also argued that research suggested that teacher’s degrees had little impact on students’ performance especially during the initial years of educators’ work (Jacob & Ludwig, 2009). Therefore, the standards existing in the field were not efficient enough. At the same time, students’ performance was the major focus of educators and, hence, only this factor could reveal the effectiveness of this or that teacher. The program had support as numerous smaller-scale incentives had proved to be effective.

For instance, Holley and Wright (2008) reported about benefits of a pilot program in Michigan public schools. Officials concluded that the efficacy of numerous district incentives was the sufficient basis for the development and implementation of a similar plan on a larger scale.

The process of assessment of students’ performance and teachers’ effectiveness also raised a lot of questions as researchers, as well as policymakers, had not agreed on the most efficient measurement. For instance, Berk (2005) outlined twelve strategies to measure teaching effectiveness and stressed that students’ performance during tests could be the most appropriate way to identify the most successful educators. The DATE employed this approach and results of students’ standardized tests were the basis of rewards distribution.

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Impact and Policy Implementation

The District Awards for Teacher Excellence plan started in 2008. The program involved significant financing and had to have long-reaching outcomes. Thus, in 2010-2011, the state budget allocated $392 million which was distributed among teachers of high-performing, high poverty schools (Stutz, 2013). The funds were allocated so that 60% went directly to teachers as awards while 40% of the funds could be employed as additional staff awards.

It is necessary to note that the implementation of the plan did not go smoothly. For instance, fewer than one in five districts agreed to participate in the program (OECD, 2009). There were numerous concerns and districts as well as schools were reluctant to take part in the incentive. Hence, some schools refused to enter the program as participation involved extra costs for districts (OECD, 2009). Another issue related to implementation was educators’ fears that merit pay could affect teachers’ creativity who would try to focus on meeting certain standardized requirements rather than concentrate on improving their teaching (Cochran, Mayer, Carr, Cayer & McKenzie, 2011).

Apart from this, opponents of the DATE emphasized that there was a lack of empirical evidence that merit pay was cost-effective (Salins, 2014). Therefore, people saw lots of downsides while the benefits of the program were quite unclear.

Dramatic budget cuts led to the termination of the program which had begun only a few years earlier. It is noteworthy that officials still claim that the program has not been abandoned and it would start all over again when more funds were available. However, the funds shift from almost $400 million to $24 million suggests that the program has come to its end (Stutz, 2013). Policy makers’ position shows that their views on its effectiveness are rather mixed.

Communication to Public

The District Awards for Teacher Excellence plan got significant attention but it is quite doubtful that the attention was enough. Policymakers, educators (including unions as well as individual teachers, headmasters and so on) and researchers were major stakeholders involved in the discussion. Republicans tried to gain support from their voters and promoted the program aimed at improving the quality of education as well as teachers’ lives who often had to moonlight (Stutz, 2013). Unions were trying to improve working conditions for educators. Teachers also broadly discussed the program and its potential outcomes.

As has been mentioned above, the topic program was developed on the basis of research. Policymakers took into account various surveys and researches to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the incentive (Cochran et al., 2011). The topic obtained wide coverage in the media. Journalists highlighted different views of supporters and opponents of the incentive.

At the same time, the discussion seemed to leave other stakeholders intact. Students’ parents, as well as students, were also (at least, to a certain extent) dependent on the program but their voices remained unheard. It is possible to assume that policymakers and educators did not see the necessity to involve this group of stakeholders. Nonetheless, students had to be major beneficiaries of the incentive. Though they did not get payment, awards given to their teachers could substantially affect their learning processes through improved teaching strategies used by their educators. Inability to involve these stakeholders may have had an impact on the program’s effectiveness.

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Effect and Effectiveness

As far as the effectiveness of the District Awards for Teacher Excellence plan is concerned, it is difficult to be completely sure due to the program’s short life but it is possible to assume that it was ineffective. Even though budget cuts are the major factor that led to the closure of the program, it is necessary to note that effective incentives rarely stop abruptly. At the same time, it is possible to identify the central flaws of the policy.

In the first place, it is crucial to stress that the performance of students could never be a criterion for this program evaluation as it was too short-lived. The shift in students’ performance is often affected by a number of factors and, hence, it was difficult to estimate the role of teachers’ awards in this process (at such a short period).

One of the major shortcomings of the Texas incentive was its improper communication to the public. As has been mentioned above, the program failed to obtain wide attention on the part of students and their parents who constituted a larger part of the stakeholders involved. The policy could have a longer life if more people participated in the discussion. There are chances that the level of funding would decrease or the program would prove to be ineffective as a result of sufficient research. However, the incentive would not stop that abruptly.

Another downside that makes the plan ineffective is related to the failure to obtain sufficient evidence. Supporters of the incentive stressed that awards would positively affect teachers’ performance and will improve students’ academic performance as well. However, they did not provide particular data which could justify substantial funding of such a large-scale program.

Nevertheless, irrespective of these flaws the policy did have a certain effect. The incentive enriched the debate concerning merit pay. It has shown that large-scale programs require substantial funding and are not cost-effective at the time of financial constraints. At the same time, local communities could acknowledge the benefits of the incentive. The District Awards for Teacher Excellence plan also revealed issues to be addressed when developing similar policies.


On balance, it is possible to state that the District Awards for Teacher Excellence plan was an ineffective program that still had a valuable impact on society. The policy was short-lived and it is difficult to estimate its cost-effectiveness. However, it is possible to outline factors that led to the program’s end. These factors are improper communication strategies, trying to cover a vast area and inability to provide sufficient evidence or create the need.

A brief analysis of the factors mentioned above makes it possible to provide certain recommendations. First, such incentives have to embrace all stakeholders involved. It is essential to address students and their parents and make them involved in the discussion as, after all, their children benefit and their money (paid in taxes) are allocated to fund such programs. It is also necessary to estimate costs before starting such a large-scale program.

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More importantly, it is crucial to create the need or provide sufficient evidence to prove that the program can be effective. Admittedly, there have been quite a few programs of such coverage and such incentives are often short-lived. Hence, it is difficult to prove the program will be effective. However, it is possible to create the need and make all stakeholders consider the benefits and possible downsides of the program. It is important to draw people’s attention to the problem and enable them to make a thoughtful decision that can (and will) affect their lives. These recommendations can ensure that similar projects will last longer and will have a more meaningful impact on the development of US society.

Reference List

Berk, R.A. (2005). Survey of 12 strategies to measure teaching effectiveness. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(1), 48-62.

Cochran, C., Mayer, L., Carr, T., Cayer, N., & McKenzie, M. (2011). American public policy: An introduction. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Coulson, A.J. (2010). The effects of teachers unions on American education. Cato Journal, 30(1), 155-170.

Holley, M.J., & Wright, P.J. (2008). A merit-pay pilot program for Michigan public schools. Mackinac Center, 1(1), 1-12.

Jacob, B.A., & Ludwig, J. (2009). Improving educational outcomes for poor children. Focus, 26(2), 56-61.

OECD. (2009). Evaluating and rewarding the quality of teachers: International practices. New York, NY: OECD Publishing.

Salins, P. (2014). The smart society: Strengthening America’s greatest resource, its people. New York, NY: Encounter Books.

Stutz, T. (2013). Texas merit pay plan for teachers quietly disappears. Dallas News. Web.