First Person

Why Bother with Merit Pay?

What is the point of merit pay for teachers? Isn’t that the first question we should be asking? And then, given that answer, do we think that it will work? Let’s take a look!

(Let me be clear here: for the sake of this discussion, I am talking about some sort of compensation structure by which individual teachers get bonuses and/or raises based on their own students’ performance on some sort of test or measure.)

One possible reason to adopt merit pay is that it seems more just, in a way. That is, it would be only be fair if better teachers should be paid more money. I mean, who wouldn’t think that better teachers — even if by “better teachers” we mean “teachers who get better results” — deserve more money? We could argue about which outcomes and measures are meaningful, but the basic idea has a lot of appeal.

There is another big potential reason to adopt merit pay — a far more compelling possibility. If a merit pay program would somehow lead to improved outcomes, who would oppose such a thing? But I wonder if that result is even plausible, given the realities and details that so many people want to ignore. So, let’s think about what the theory of action (i.e. how/why such programs lead to the desired outcomes) might be. How could a merit pay program lead to improved outcomes? I have three big questions.

1) My first question about any merit pay program would have to be, “Where is the money going to come from?” Obviously, that is related to “How big a program are we talking about?”

There are lots of reason to building large program, covering many teachers and with large bonuses (see below). However, this runs up against a problem that is not seen in most other industries. You see, better teaching – even better outcomes – does not produce the revenue to pay for these bonuses. A better salesperson will generate greater revenue, revenue than can be used to pay for his/her bonus. A more efficient repairperson can cover more repairs, saving the employer on headcount, thus economically justifying a bonus. But what about a better teacher?

The public schools already have enormous market share. More importantly, additional students drawn from private schools do not generate additional revenue. Additional student drawn from charter schools generate less than average revenue. So, where would the money come from?

Washington, D.C., appears to be on the brink of starting a large new merit pay program. However, it is being paid for with private funds. What happens when those grants run out? New York City’s public school system is 25 times the size of D.C.’s. Are there private grants that would pay for an equivalent program in NYC? This is simply not a scalable solution, neither as a long term solution nor as a broad solution for many districts.

2) My next question is, “How much money will it take to alter the behavior of existing teachers?”

That is one of the basic principles of merit pay programs, right? That is, by providing monetary incentives, teachers will work differently than they would otherwise. Well, would what it take?

We already know that teachers are not particularly sensitive to monetary incentive. After all, they chose to go into a famously low-paying profession, one without enormous financial upside. (Yes, given decades of experience and very advanced degrees, they can make over $100,000 in some districts, but that amount of experience and education yields far greater compensation in other fields.) There are decades of research to back this up — research that shows that teachers are not particularly motivated by financial rewards. We should, therefore, expect them to need even larger bonuses to alter behavior in education than in other fields.

But we are still missing a theory of action. There is a still a black box or underwear gnomes scenario (i.e. a situation in which a key step that is never explored or explained). If teachers do not know what to do to be better, how is paying them bonuses going to help solve that problem? If, on the other hand, teachers know but are too lazy to do what it takes, how is offering these already lazy and monetarily insensitive folks bonuses going to change that? How is the possibility of bonuses going to alter behavior?

I think that this line of thinking contains the most common mistake people who support merit pay make. They confuse how they might respond to such a structure with how others might respond. People in finance are accustomed to a large bonus component of their compensation, and they believe that this system works. However, the people who have gone into that industry already knew that going in. This is a system that works for them. But teachers did not go into such a system, and clearly were not looking for even the possibility of massive compensation. Why expect them to respond like people in finance might?

I am not suggesting that there is not some level of bonus that would alter behavior. Rather, I am asking what it is, or what the rational basis for determining it might be. Is there a research basis for establishing the size of these bonuses? Is there even a logic behind the setting of merit pay bonuses for teachers beyond “This is how much money we have raised”?

3) My last big question is, “How much money would it take to significantly alter the composition of the teacher pool?”

There are many who believe that we have the wrong people in teaching — that we need harder workers or smarter people, or whatever. Many of them are merit pay proponents, and they see such programs as attracting more of the right people to the classroom.

An argument that I have heard quite a few times suggests that some people choose not go into teaching because they resent the idea of not being rewarded for their excellence. This argument suggests that what is important to them is being recognized as being better than their colleagues. I suppose that I have some sympathy for this argument. After all, who does not want their accomplishments recognized? But that is not the same thing as insisting that one’s recognition come in the form of a check! Is anyone seriously suggesting that making $100 bonuses available to the best teachers will significantly alter the pool of teachers? That is simply a laughable suggestion, right? If recognition of excellence is important, that can be addressed in ceremonies, announcements and/or public bulletins, and done far less expensively than merit pay programs while offering far greater inventive than small checks.

I understand that there are many people who never consider going into teaching, or who rule it out, because of the level of compensation. But small or even moderate bonuses are not going to change that. I understand that people want to be rewarded for their hard work and accomplishments, and some people expect more money for that than others. So, again, how large would the bonuses have to be, and how many would have to be available, to alter the career decisions of a significant number of people?

For example, if a teacher could potentially double his/her first year salary, but only one one out of a thousand teachers would get the bonus, would that possibility attract a lot of new applicants?

4) My last question is really a composite of the first three. “If the money available for such a program is neither enough to alter behaviors nor attract new people to teaching, isn’t merit pay just a way to reward existing high performers? And how does that actually improve our schools?”

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.


The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …


Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.


Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.