Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Does Merit Pay for Individual Teachers Align With the PLC Concept? Part I

The idea of merit pay for individual teachers has been touted as a way to improve student achievement. One state, for example, proposed a merit-pay system that would designate up to 25 percent of teachers in a district for a 5 percent merit-pay bonus on the basis of student achievement on the state assessments.

Let’s examine the rationale behind this proposal for merit pay.

  1. Teachers are the key to improving student achievement.
  2. Teachers are motivated by money and will work harder at improving student achievement if they are provided with the possibility of financial gain and the recognition that accompanies it.
  3. If too many people are given this recognition it will diminish its impact and therefore no longer serve as a motivator. Therefore, merit pay must be limited to a select few.
  4. We can determine the teachers who are most effective on the basis of a single test on a single day.
  5. Because teaching is an isolated activity it is legitimate to award individual teachers who work independently of one another.

I agree with the first assumption, but I disagree with the next four. It is counter-intuitive to argue that someone who has entered the profession of education is motivated primarily by money. It is illogical that someone who is not motivated to do his or her best for students for $50,000 will suddenly be inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty for the one in four chance to make $52,500. It is not plausible that a system designed to ensure that 75 percent of its members will fail each year promotes organizational success. Most of all, we have a century of evidence that demonstrates merit pay for teachers does not improve student achievement.

In The Knowing-Doing Gap, organizational theorists Pfeffer and Sutton use merit pay for teachers as a classic example of people continuing to promote proposals that have repeatedly been shown to fail an illustration of the gap between what we know and what we do. As they write:

You don’t have to read the evidence from literally decades of research to spot the problems with merit pay for schoolteachers. That evidence shows that merit-pay plans seldom last longer than five years and that merit pay consistently fails to improve student performance. The very logic of merit pay for teachers suggests that it won’t do what it is intended to do (p. 23).

They go on to demonstrate that organizations that create zero-sum games where in order for some of us to win others of us must lose, create internal competition that discourages cooperation and mutual assistance and works against organizational effectiveness. A competitive culture makes the sharing of information and the mutual development of skills very unlikely because it is so counter to individual self-interest. An organization that expects people to share information, learn from each other, and work collaboratively to enhance overall performance will not rely on a system of internal competition that actually discourages those behaviors.

Over 25 years ago, Peters and Waterman considered the impact of reward systems on organizational performance in their book In Search of Excellence. They discovered that organizations that established reward systems to ensure lots of losers (for example, 75 percent of you will lose) were consistently low performers. As they said, if year after year a few people are winners and everyone else is a loser, eventually the losers start to act like losers.

Of course, there are logistical obstacles to merit pay. How will counselors, art teachers, special education teachers, and teachers of noncore curriculum be included if performance on the state test is an important variable? There is also the issue of defining "top performing." If I teach in a high SES school where students excel on the state test but demonstrate little growth during the year, am I a high performer? If I help my low SES students show two years of growth but they fall short on the state test, am I top performer?

But those are logistical obstacles. There are two bigger problems. First, it works against the interdependence, mutual accountability, and collaboration essential to professional learning communities that represent best practice in our profession. Why would I, as an individual teacher, share my effective strategies with colleagues if by doing so I risk no longer standing out as exemplary and thus will no longer qualify for merit pay? Why would I help students in another classroom become proficient if by doing so I am taking money out of my own pocket? If I am motivated by money, I will hoard my most effective practices and hope for dismal performances from my colleagues. The second problem with merit pay goes beyond philosophy or sharing of opinions: we have decades of research and evidence demonstrating that it will not help more students learn.

A school that claims to value the big ideas of the PLC concept, a commitment to higher levels of learning for all students, a collaborative culture and collective effort to support that learning, and the transparency of results essential to improved professional practice, will recognize that merit pay runs counter to everything they say they value.

Finally, here is my prediction for the states that adopt merit pay for teachers: The next time the state has a budget crisis, the merit-pay plan will be abolished as too costly in light of its failure to improve student achievement. Politicians will blame teachers and teacher unions for the failure of merit-pay programs and will accept no responsibility for pursuing a feckless strategy that has been repeatedly proven to be ineffective in promoting higher levels of learning for all students.



Boyd & Hord (1994), describe a professional learning community as a place where critical inquiry is practiced by collegial partners who share a common vision and engage in shared decision-making. I do agree with Rick, if a state chooses to award performance pay to only 25% of their certified teachers, why would a teacher choose to continue sharing lesson plans, learning strategies or valid assessments with fellow teaching partners, if there is a 75% chance they might not stand out as exemplary and qualify for a merit bonus?

I work in a school district which encourages teachers and administrators to continue to seek and share learning, but unfortunately there are not any consequences for staff that choose not to participate. Each Wednesday, the school district allows an hour for teachers to collaborate in their professional learning community (PLC) without the disruption of students. My PLC consists of four middle school science teachers. Three of us meet each Wednesday. Two of us actually discuss learning strategies, classroom lessons or assessments to improve student learning while the third teacher reads Sports Illustrated.

In the 2007 report on Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve, it suggested instead of signaling out individual teachers to receive merit pay, to award a performance-pay to a small team (PLC). It would be fantastic to share a merit bonus with the colleague who engages in reflective dialogue and is focused on student learning, collaboration and shares my values. But, with 50% of my PLC not meeting the expectation set by the district and building administrator, do I want to share classroom lessons and assessments which we have spent valuable time creating with the other colleagues who choose not to take the time to attend or participate in our PLC? If our PLC is chosen by the district to receive the merit bonus, are we expected to share merit money with everyone in the PLC?

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Rick DuFour

David Paterson has clearly reacted adversely to my blog article addressing whether or not “merit pay for individual teachers” aligns with the PLC concept. In responding to that query, I specifically cited the example of a state that was proposing to offer merit pay of 5 percent bonuses to a maximum of 25 percent of the teachers in a school on the basis of student performance on the state test. I offered several reasons as to why proposals such as these do not align with the PLC concept.

David contends that I have obfuscated the issue of merit pay and revealed the kind of bias he is fighting to overcome. He argues that money does play a role in teacher motivation, merit pay systems are not focused on individuals but support the team and school effort, to suggest that merit pay would be based on student achievement scores is disingenuous, and performance based pay would reinforce the team aspects of teaching and learning. He urges me to read a 2007 report on Performance-Pay for Teachers which is available at

I find David’s reaction puzzling on several fronts. First, my comments were specific to a model that provides a limited number of teachers with an opportunity to earn a small percentage increase based on student scores on a state assessment. This is the model currently being considered in several states. The report to which David refers specifically and emphatically articulates its opposition to that model. It stipulates that, “we worry that many of the performance-pay blueprints now on the table will not translate into the high-achieving schools.”

Thus, it would seem that we should have common ground here. So he really doesn’t appear to be reacting to the model I critiqued. Instead, he argues 1) teachers are motivated at least in part by money and 2) merit pay can be used to promote collaboration and reward achievement. I will comment on both of those points.

We simply will have to disagree on the impact of the possibility of making more money serves as a motivator for teachers. I suggest that if money was somehow correlated with the motivation of educators, veteran staff at the top of the salary schedule would be twice as motivated as teachers with just a few years of experience. Teachers who work in a district or state that pays more than a neighboring district or state would be more motivated. I have found no such correlation. This is not unique to teachers. When Fredrick Herzberg studied what motivated people in a variety of fields – from unskilled workers to professionals- he found that the most powerful motivators were a belief in the significance of the work being done, appreciation, advancement, recognition, increased responsibility, and opportunity for growth. Pay was not a motivator for any of the groups he studied. So David will have to convince me that the opportunity to make more money is a motivator for our profession when it is not for others. I welcome any evidence he can offer to support that claim.

The report to which David refers is not a call for merit pay but rather is a variation on a three-tiered career ladder concept, and idea cited by the New York Times more than two decades ago as a popular innovation in education. The report acknowledges that this approach has been attempted in states and districts for over a quarter of a century without a great deal of success. It argues the model could be successful and that teachers should become eligible for performance bonuses when:

* They help student learn more. Bravo! The PLC focus on learning. The report is not clear as to how this learning should be documented. It opposes relying on state assessments and expresses reservations about value-added testing. It calls for assessments and accountability that are sophisticated enough to measure significant progress, but it doesn’t cite examples that have been proven effective.
* They work in small teams to accelerate student learning. Bravo! The PLC collaborative culture. The report does not cite examples of where this has been done successfully, but the recommendation offers a big improvement over individual merit pay because it fosters rather than obstructs teacher collaboration. Of course, if teachers are motivated by money and performance bonuses are limited, a team that is getting good results might not be inclined to share its strategies with other teams if it lessens the likelihood of their bonus.
* They develop and use relevant new knowledge and skills. The report calls for professional development customized to the specific learning community in which the teacher works. Bravo! The PLC call for ongoing professional development that is collective and systematically aligned with the goals of the team and school. The report calls for teams to document the impact of their increased knowledge and skills on student learning, but does not suggest how.
* They fulfill specific needs in the labor market. Agreed. There is no reason that laws of supply and demanded are suspended in education. A physics teacher should be compensated more that a physical education teacher because there are so few of the former and so many competing markets to which they can turn to employment. I also agree with the report’s conclusion that simply paying teachers more money to work in high needs schools has not and will not attract teachers to the schools or improve achievement in them. (Sounds like the report agrees money is not a major motivator for teachers). Teachers themselves report the much bigger incentive is the working conditions in schools.
* They demonstrate school and community leadership. Bravo! Perfectly aligned with the widely dispersed leadership called for in PLCs

So I found that I agreed with much of what was in the report; however, what it advocates is not what I was asked to respond to in my blog which specifically called for my thoughts on whether merit for some individual teachers based primarily on test scores aligns with the PLC process.

Furthermore, I would suggest that most of what is recommended in the report has been proposed by a variety of groups, task forces, and blue ribbon committees in one form or another for over a quarter of a century. The proposals are powerful, but the devil is in the details. I continue to be concerned that states and districts will take the easy way out and will limit the performance incentives to a fraction of educators. In fact, given the financial conditions of most states, I cannot imagine a scenario in which state government would accept the financial exposure inherent in a system that would create the potential for every educator in the state to receive 10 percent bonuses. I am concerned that states will base performance incentives on simple rather than sophisticated assessments, will exclude many educators from the possibility of performance bonuses because they are not classroom teachers or because they don’t teach the right subjects, and will ultimately abandon the concept when it fails to improve student achievement…. and that they will blame the failure on educators. I hope I am wrong.

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Rick - I am terrible disappointed with your blog on merit pay.

You are guilty of using the same obfuscation of the true issues regarding performance-based pay that others use in their efforts to discredit PLCs!

As the Director of three charter schools, we have spent years overcoming biases. For example our elementary schools are Core Knowledge schools - we had to fight traditional school officials who believe in narrowing the curriculum, the opposite of Core Knowledge. We believe that parents are our full partners, when the traditional educational establishment limits itself to baking cookies. The list goes on and on.

Performance-based pay, or the less accurate term merit pay is NOT anything close to the biased descriptors you used, which I pasted below.
1. Teachers are the key to improving student achievement. YES - WE AGREE!
2. Teachers are motivated by money and will work harder at improving student achievement if they are provided with the possibility of financial gain and the recognition that accompanies it. PERFORMANCE BASED COMPENSATION SYSTEMS RECOGNIZE THAT TEACHERS ARE NOT PRIMARILY MOTIVATED BY $$$, BUT THAT IT DOES HAVE A ROLE.
3. If too many people are given this recognition it will diminish its impact and therefore no longer serve as a motivator. Therefore, merit pay must be limited to a select few. PERFORMANCE BASED SYSTEMS ARE NOT FOCUSED ON SINGLE INDIVIDUALS, BUT SUPPORTS RECOGNIZING TEAM AND SCHOOL BASED PERFORMANCE.
4. We can determine the teachers who are most effective on the basis of a single test on a single day. WRONG! TO SUGGEST THIS IS SO DISINGENIOUS!
5. Because teaching is an isolated activity it is legitimate to award individual teachers who work independently of one another. WRONG - PERFORMANCE BASED SYSTEMS RECOGNIZE AND RE-ENFORCE THE TEAM ASPECTS OF TEACHING AND LEARNING.
Please - Let me recommend one report of the many reports that may be helpful to you. It is Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve. You can get a copy at

David Patterson
Executive Director, Rocklin Academy

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