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Does teacher merit pay merit another look?

Does teacher merit pay lead to more successful students?
Does teacher merit pay lead to more successful students?

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When students perform well in school, they can look forward to success in later life. It’s a concept that has been supported by numerous studies, and it just seems to make sense. But a big component of students’ classroom performance has to do with good teachers.

Enter the idea of teacher merit pay. The concept behind merit pay is simple: teachers get higher salaries if their students test higher. Teachers’ unions and education experts have long denounced the system, seeing it as demeaning and ineffective. Many argue that it would result in a type of teaching that wouldn’t lead to actual learning, with teachers focusing more on drilling test answers into students than their understanding of the material.

However, a new study by researchers at Harvard, University of Chicago and UC San Diego purports to show that merit pay does actually work. In the nine Chicago-area schools where they conducted the study, they found that teacher merit pay led to higher student test scores.

An even more successful method of raising scores was “loss aversion,” where teachers were given an initial bonus and then had to pay back the rewards they didn’t earn.

Should this type of merit pay be implemented in elementary schools? Could teachers become demoralized by the system? Could it end up turning them against each other? Or would it lead to more successful classrooms?


Sally Sadoff, Assistant Professor, Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego, co-author of the study with Roland Fryer (Harvard University) and Steven Levitt and John List (University of Chicago), "Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment"

Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center located at the University of Colorado at Boulder and professor of education policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education