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.

A PLC Approach to Merit Pay

The Race to the Top guidelines have sparked renewed interest in the topic of merit pay for teachers. In earlier blogs we outlined why we oppose the idea of merit pay for individual teachers because the concept is based on faulty assumptions and there is abundant evidence over decades that prove merit pay does not accomplish what it is intended to accomplish—higher levels of achievement for students. In 2006, Stanford researchers Pfeffer and Sutton reported that decades of research on merit pay for individual teachers provided consistent evidence: Merit pay plans consistently fail to improve student achievement and rarely last longer than five years. As Michael Fullan recently wrote, “There is no research that suggests widespread benefits derive from merit pay.” In fact, one recent study of merit pay for individual teachers over a seven-year period reported, “Our results consistently indicate that the increased emphasis on individual teacher performance caused a significant decline in student achievement.”

If, however, districts are committed to implement some form of merit pay, we contend that the reward should go to an entire school rather than individual teachers and should be based on evidence that the school is functioning as a high-performing professional learning community. If incentives are to be provided, they should encourage educators to work collaboratively and to take collective responsibility for student learning because that is what is most likely to impact student achievement in a positive way throughout a school.

The PLC concept has been endorsed by leading educational researchers throughout the world as the best strategy for raising student achievement across a school. In the McKinsey Group’s study (2007) of the world’s highest-performing school systems, the report concluded that those systems functioned as PLCs. The 2009 Odden and Archibald study of districts that doubled student achievement concluded those districts insisted that their schools function as PLCs. John Hattie’s (2008) comprehensive study of factors that impact student achievement concluded the best strategy for raising student achievement in a school is to have the professionals within it function as a PLC. WestEd, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Staff Development Council are just some of the organizations that have endorsed the PLC concept as our best hope for improving schools.

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future argues, “It is time to end the practice of solo teaching in isolated classrooms. . . . Today’s teachers must transform their personal knowledge into a collectively built, widely shared, and cohesive professional knowledge base.” As the president of that organization wrote in the 2009 Phi Delta Kappan

“Quality teaching is not an individual accomplishment, it is the result of a collaborative culture that empowers teachers to team up to improve student learning beyond what any of them can achieve alone. . . . The idea that a single teacher, working alone, can know and do everything to meet the diverse learning needs of 30 students every day throughout the school year has rarely worked, and it certainly won’t meet the needs of learners in years to come.”

When Newmann and Wehlage (1995) did their comprehensive study of school effectiveness, they found there were many schools that had competent individual teachers who were unable to raise student achievement because that requires a collective effort rather than a series of isolated individual efforts. They concluded that schools that were able to raise student achievement “have more than competent individual staff: They have the organizational capacity to work collectively as a group for high-quality learning for all students. Schools that operate as strong professional learning communities contribute to student achievement and to equitable distribution of achievement.”

For decades, educational researchers have cited the traditional school culture of teachers working in isolation as one of the biggest impediments to improving schools. As Harvard’s Richard Elmore wrote, “The existing institutional structure of public education does one thing very well: It creates a normative environment that values idiosyncratic, isolated, and individualistic learning at the expense of collective learning. . . . Privacy of practice produces isolation; isolation is the enemy of improvement.” Yet merit pay for individual teachers reinforces the assumption that teachers work in isolation and that what students learn depends solely on the individual teacher. Furthermore, it actually serves to discourage collaboration, sharing of best practice, and collective responsibility, since by sharing highly effective strategies with colleagues, a teacher actually lessens the likelihood that he or she will qualify for merit pay.

If we are asking educators to use research-based strategies for improving schools, certainly incentives that encourage the entire staff of a school to function as a PLC should take precedent over incentive plans that reward individuals. By including raising student achievement as an indicator of a PLC, a district could align its program with the Race to the Top premise that evidence of student learning should be a factor in determining the effectiveness of educators.

Providing incentives for a school rather than individuals also addresses the problem of how educators outside of the core curriculum—school counselors, teachers of art, music, foreign language, physical education, etc.—can qualify for merit pay. This proposal is not without faults, but it represents a much-preferred alternative to merit pay for individual teachers.



Also, to the point that teachers aren't primarily motivated by money, I couldn't agree more. Perry's "Public Service Motivation Theory" gets into this in detail.

However, being mostly motivated by altruistic elements does not decouple the economic side of a teacher's brain. Like everyone else, at sufficient enough levels, financial incentives get attention.

By applying the knowledge around altruistic motivators for teachers and attaching pay to things that matter to them, we might structure pay plans that run on all available "cylinders" in driving improvement.

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Some of these responses are based around some of the common "myths" about performance pay (or merit pay, or strategic compensation, or differentiated compensation, or whatever).

There are some assumptions made here that these systems need be based completely on test scores and that those test scores must be analyzed using purely simple "attainment" based methods, that individual student factors are not taken into account, and that its impossible to define or measure quality teaching and high levels of student learning.

All these things are false.

In fact, check out this Prezi I did on the topic:

Wow, I can't believe this thing is still going, which is a tip to my original point that there are lots of "opinions" on this issue, and not much actual knowledge.

Also, to an earlier exchange I had with Dufour on whether or not there is "any evidence" that "merit pay" has an effect, see this recent study on Denver's system:

The research is admittedly mixed, but more recent works suggest that, if structured correctly, these models can have an impact.

Again, its too early to be dismissive of them - we need more experimentation and less dogma.

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I am a teacher in Houston ISD which has merit (performance) pay and I am a fan because not only are scores counted but the growth of students is taken into account. I have dealt with students over the past three years that on a certain scale would not be considered successful but if you look at the growth they have made from year to year they are actually successful. We work as a school because we want each student and teacher to have the feeling of being successes. The problem comes in when everyone is not working toward one goal and that can happen when you have schools with selfish individuals regardless of merit pay.

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Rhonda Stitley

I also do not agree with merit pay for teachers. I do believe that we should get some kind of pay increase for our efforts, but I think it should be school wide. If we pay teachers according to student performance, how many teachers will actually get the pay increase? What measures will they use to determine if we are entitled to the pay increase? If the pay increase is directed toward the school, it will not create competition among individual teachers. Teachers would be more apt to collaborate and work with each other if it is school based.

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I also do not agree with "merit pay" or "performance pay". I work at an inner city school with students who have disabilities in an inclusion setting. The problem I have with merit pay is I work everyday to improve my students learning, and getting more money is not an incentive. I would like to get paid more money for doing the job I do every day. Shouldn't my pay be based on what I do not what the students do. A teacher has no control over what happens to the students outside the classroom. For example, if they had their medication, did they get breakfast, were the caregivers fighting all night and my student did not get to sleep. I make a difference in the lives of my student everyday. The money I make is supposed to depend on one moment in time.
If merit pay is to happen, who is going to decided whether or not a student improve, what is going to be the measure of student success, etc.

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I don't agree with Merit pay! My raise or pay should not be soley based on student achievement. When I have 5 out of 11 students who are 2-3 years behind grade level, one of those exhibiting autistic tedencies, one who is not potty trained and poops all over the school,one who should have been held back in first grade, and one who is just plain lazy and her mother thinks it is cute,and I am doing everything humanly possible including by spending so much time with these students that my middle and top students are being left on their own. Parents will not make sure that these students bring folders and homework to school, they get them there late, how is this my fault? It takes everyone not just the teacher to work with kids to help them to succeed.My evaluation should be base o how am I presenting the lesson and how well my students are performing in class,not how well they are performing on some state test. Last year this was my class.Also during this week, some of my students were very sick. One ran 105 fever all week.Also one of my students just wnet through the test marking answers not even bothering to read and laughed about it even though we stressed the importance of this test.How is it that their non performance on a once a year state mandated test is my poor teaching? When I have to slow my teaching down so much that my on grade level and higher students are bored thatis the parents and the school system's fault,not mine. When parents will not work with their children, and think it is cute when by the age of 8 they do not know to go to the restroom when they need to, and a child that is almost 9 in the second grade but functions on a kindergarten level, and the mother will not work with this child, why should I be removed from the classroom, or worse be fired? My class' scores have always been competetive with the teachers on my grade level in the past. But one year they are low, and there is no parental or administrative support, I get moved, and threatened with being fired. Oh, and WHO is evaluating the principals?

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Staff at


This article should answer your question.


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I have enjoyed everything that I have read, but I want to look at merit pay from my perspective.. In CT state test are only given to 10 graders in the high schools, so how would merit pay be beneficial when you only have a handful of teachers that will teach them. You cannot go by final grades for the year. I teach in a high school and I have only one class of 10 graders while other teachers have 3 or even more. Then there are some that do not have any of them. So since they do not have any they would not be eligible to receive any merit pay. You could have good teachers not getting any incentives.

I just wondering what you guys thought about this. We are just starting PLC's in my school and our union has agreed to Race to the Top.

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Rick and Becky DuFour


Read the comprehensive blog I wrote about small learning communities on April 24, 2008. Changing the structure of your school from bigger to smaller will have no impact on student achievement unless you also take steps to ensure collaborative teams of teachers have worked together to establish a guaranteed curriculum and common pacing, created multiple common formative assessment to monitor each students learning on a timely basis, and use the results to inform both individual teachers and the team of the strengths and weaknesses in their instruction. Furthermore, the school must have a systematic plan to provide any student who experiences difficulty in learning with additional time and support for learning. Changing the structure of your school does not address these imperatives. Adding an advisory won't address these imperatives. There are terrible schools with advisories and great school without advisories. Do not settle for merely playing with the structure or adding new programs. Ultimately, you will have to work collaboratively on the right work if you are going to create the school culture that you need to improve student achievement.

Rick DuFour

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As an advocated of performance pay, I would say the reason I'm for it is that its simply asking districts to start using their dollars in ways that line up with their goals.

If our goal is for people to get older and earn more graduate credits, then we are paying appropriately.

Alternatively, if our goal is for great teaching and learning to happen then we aren't using the money in smart ways.

The devil is in the details, of course, in how do you measure great teaching and learning. While these are hard concepts to master and measure, that is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't be going after them, experimenting, and learning.

I don't think performance pay is a magic bullet that's going to "save" public education, but it may (along with many other smart and strategic decisions) work to move achievement incrementally in the right direction. As we pile up lots of these little steps we start to get somewhere.

Performance pay isn't about disrespecting teachers at all. I think the most disrespectful thing we do to teachers is to treat them all the same when we have lots of evidence (quantitative and qualitative) that they aren't the same.

I want more money for the best teachers, I want them making six figures and more if I can get it to them.

We shouldn't be afraid to try.

For a holistic-view conference on the subject, check this out:

Its free and everyone's invited.

Jason Glass
Eagle, CO

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Great topic. I agree with the idea that teachers are motivated by student success and relationship building. My big quesiton is why do so many people believe that incentive pay is the way to go to improve teaching in our schools? It seems to me that this is disrespectful to teachers.

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I think you would find agreement and some research to back up the idea that teachers are not primarily motivated by money, but rather to help their students learn and other ends that lean more toward altruism (see Public Service Motivation Theory).

However, this would not exclude teachers from being responsive to financial incentives. A fundamental economic principle is that rational people respond to incentives. More simply and to this case, while teachers are primarily motivated by altruistic goals, they are still responsive to financial incentives. The two theories (public service and economic) need not be mutually exclusive.

Strategic compensation (or performance pay, or merit pay) can be about aligning compensation with things that are good for kids and that the best teachers are already inclined to do. A synergy of these approaches could be a powerful motivational element, rather than the disconnected system that currently is in use.

On Pink, his new book states that compensation systems should be "adequate and fair." (see page 60 in the hardcover). I would argue that the step and level pay system is neither. Excellent teachers working in tough schools that do amazing things for kids should be getting more than those who are not.

Jason Glass
Eagle, CO

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There is one main point being unanswered: "What motivates teachers?" or "Why does a person become a teacher?" Money is not likely to be the answer to either of those questions. Teachers want to help others to become successful citizens and in the hope to create a future full of possibilities for their students. Develop the people. Both Jim Collins and Daniel Pink, when speaking of motivation, do not site money as a reason to be great or at your best. Why throw money at a problem? Talk to the top achieving teachers, what would make their careers even more fulfilling? How could money help them to better do their jobs and their collegues?
Thank you for your time,

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First and foremost, thank you both for your considered and thoughtful replies to my posts. For Mr. Hall, my sincere apologies for my typo - the address is Clearly, I am not without flaw.

In response to Dr. Dufour's reply, I would offer the following studies for his consideration and further review: Podgursky and Springer 2007; Muralidaran and Sundararaman 2006; Glewwe et. al 2004; Atkinson et al. 2004; Lavy 2002 & 2004; Winters et al. 2006; Clotfelter and Ladd 1996; Eberts et al 2002. These studies are in addition to the Figlio and Kenny study and the SAS study I presented in a previous post.

Dufour is correct that none of these studies are "definitive" and that prior research on "merit pay" approaches has proved inconclusive, some showing an effect – some not. They each make the case that we need more thinking and research. My point is rather than join into the hysteria the issue usually brings about, we continue to experiment and learn.

What we do know, conclusively, is that a tremendous amount of research shows that experience and education credits are very poor predictors of quality teaching or student learning (see Dan Goldhaber's work for example). Still, many continue to blindly advocate for these approaches to compensation. In my opinion, this is an illogical (and exhausting) defense of the status quo.

Large scale, scientifically rigorous performance pay systems are still emerging and it is reckless to take a hard line on abandoning these approaches. This is especially the case since the alternative paradigm is to rely on systems we know don’t work.

Darling-Hammond does make the point about “merit pay” not being a new idea. Respectfully, I would argue that at no time have we had the sophistication in terms of student achievement data and analysis methods that we have today. Comparing "merit pay" systems from the 1910's to those of a century later might be likened to comparing the telegraph to the Iphone for global communications purposes. We've come a long way and we should avoid absolutes in our thinking such as “this didn’t work in the past and therefore it can’t work now.”

Further, it is likely that performance pay systems work in synergy with other educational practices that can improve instruction and student learning. Performance pay systems cause the adopting district to be very critical of its professional learning systems, its student assessment systems, its teacher evaluation systems, its data collection systems. Performance pay is a catalyst that improves these related areas. I have first-hand experience working in an organization where this takes place.

Again, I make no criticism of Dufour for his work and advocacy in regard to PLCs. I respect and appreciate the advances that have occurred as a direct result of his leadership in this area. However, this “rush to judgment” approach to performance pay is out of line and premature.

Further, I appreciate Dufour’s acknowledgment that group based rewards (such as school or district rewards) may have merit (pun intended) and may be powerful in collaboration with an effective professional learning community. We are in agreement that this can be one useful way of configuring a performance pay system.

However, this is not to say that individual incentives and rewards might not also be useful. From the theoretical perspective of seeing this issue through a lens of “strategic compensation,” if we acknowledge the fact that there are indeed differences in the quality of teachers (that is, they are not “widgets”) does it not logically follow that we should be compensating them differentially? This model would have us working to identify the most effective teachers and reward them as handsomely as we can, while not extending our finite resources via ineffective systems to ineffective individuals.

To Hall and Dufour – thanks again for the exchange. We are better through reasoned debate.

Jason Glass
Eagle, CO

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Bill Hall

Jason, at your suggestion, I emailed you at the address you provided to request information on school principals I could contact to learn how their teachers work in high-performing collaborative teams and still participate in a performance pay plan. The email came back as "undeliverable". Do you have an alternate email address? I am interested in contacting practitioners who supervise teachers who work together in professional learning communities yet only a limited percentage of those team members receive additional pay based on performance.

Thank you,

Bill Hall

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Rick DuFour

I find Jason’s responses confusing. On April 14 he asserts that my blog on a PLC approach to merit pay assumes “performance pay (or merit pay) systems are singular in nature.” In that blog, I offered reasons why the idea of merit pay for individual teachers did not align with PLC practices. I did, however, offer suggestions for how performance incentives for teams and schools could be created to promote the PLC process, and suggested that this approach was superior to performance pay for individuals. In his post of April 15, he acknowledges the fact that I was not opposed to the idea of performance pay per se, but for performance pay for individuals, and he seems to agree with me.

I didn’t change my position during those 24 hours, and I am uncertain as to how, in his mind, I was wrong on Wednesday and correct on Thursday. Furthermore, on my post of October 12, I stressed that I was open to other strategies for providing financial incentives to educators – career ladders that might provide greater compensation for taking on more responsibilities, incentives for working in challenging schools, incentives for teachers in subject areas where there are a shortage of candidates, etc. So, to be clear, I am arguing that the idea of providing financial incentives for individual teachers on the basis of test scores is not a good strategy for raising student achievement for all the reasons that I cited in my blogs of September 15, October 12, and April 14.

If Jason wants to argue the strategy of providing financial incentives for individual teachers will raise student achievement, he will need to provide some compelling evidence. The only research study that he does offer in support of his position (Figlio and Kinney) acknowledges that prior to their study in 2006, “In summary, there is no U.S. evidence of a positive correlation between individual incentive systems for teachers and student achievement.” They did identify a correlation between merit pay for individuals and higher test scores but only if merit pay is awarded “to a small fraction of teachers.” They also acknowledged, however, “The association between teacher incentives and student performance could be due to better schools adopting teacher incentives or to teacher incentives eliciting more effort from teachers; it is impossible to rule out the former explanation with our cross sectional data.”

I did not claim to present an exhaustive review of research on the subject in earlier blogs. But if we are going to examine research to support our respective arguments, I ask Jason to consider the weight of the evidence. I asserted that merit pay for individuals is not a new concept and that it has typically been abandoned in districts that have tried it. He certainly must agree, since the research study he cites acknowledges that the percentage of American districts using merit pay has dropped from 48% in 1918, to 20% in 1939, to 4% in 1952. Consider Linda Darling-Hammond’s assertion: “Performance pay plans came in went and the 1920s, the 1950s, and most recently the 1980s when 47 states introduced versions of performance pay, all of which were gone by the early1990s.” Among the reasons she cites for the abandonment of merit pay were it “undermined collaboration,” a “lack of evidence of beneficial effects,” and “the lack of public will to continue increased compensation.” She concludes, “merit pay that singles out individual teachers for annual bonuses has been particularly problematic” because it does little for long-term salaries or retention and “has been found to be de-motivating to most teachers.” Consider Pfeffer and Sutton’s conclusion that “the evidence shows merit pay plans seldom last longer than five years and consistently fails to improve student achievement.” Consider Michael Fullan’s conclusion in All System Go: “I repeat, no research exists that demonstrates the widespread benefits derive from merit pay.”

I continue to assert that if we were to assess merit pay for individuals on the basis of the weight of the evidence, we would not regard it as a powerful strategy for improving schools. I continue to assert that if we were interested in building the collective capacity of a staff to meet the needs of students, we would align our practices, policies, and procedures to the PLC concept. I remain open to the possibility that some form of performance-based pay could contribute toward that end. If Jason’s district has found the way to do so and can demonstrate that it is leading to higher levels of student achievement and faculty efficacy, I urge him to share his experience and his evidence on this blog so that others might benefit.

Rick Dufour

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Eagle County Schools is such a district Mr. Hall. This district has arguably the most aggressive implementation of performance pay in the country, and has a professional development system patterned after (though not an exact model of) the Teacher Advancement Program. Simply, the two are not mutually exclusive concepts and are actually synergistic.

My email is if you'd like more information.

Keep in mind, that performance pay need not necessarily be competitive. DuFour is correct in saying that the systems can be structured for district and building rewards which encourage collaboration. Again, to my point that not all these systems are the same.

Performance pay is also much more sophisticated than a "carrot and stick" sort of behaviorist approach. Rather, its about recognizing the reality that schools have finite resources and it is rational to put more of those resources in the hands of the most effective educators. Perhaps a more precise term is "strategic compensation." Rather than using some 80% of your funds in ways that don't align with good teaching and student achievement, use them in ways that do.

I look forward to your correspondence.

Jason Glass
Eagle, CO

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Bill Hall

As with most states, Florida's recent application for the Race to the Top did not make the final cut. This very afternoon, Florida's Governor Charlie Crist vetoed Senate Bill 6 which would have required all districts to develop and implement merit pay plans for teachers. Although Florida dodged these two bullets, it won't be long before politicians and legislators try again to force merit pay into our public school systems.

Jason Glass mentions PLCs twice in his reply - in the first and last paragraphs. Unfortunately, there is no reference of how, or where, performance pay and effectively implemented professional learning communities co-exist. I would be very interested in contacting any school district that touts a high quality pay-for-performance program and has high-performing PLCs in its system.

What school districts in this country have found a way to implement competitive collaboration? Please share with us the names of schools or school systems where teachers work with high levels of trust in PLCs AND receive individual merit pay. I cannot imagine such schools exist. When systems employ the "carrot and stick" method of rewarding a few teachers at the expense of everyone else, I suspect the carrot will eventually become the stick.

Bill Hall

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As usual, DuFour hits the target on the importance of PLCs and ongoing professional learning. Your knowledge and expertise in this area are without question.

However, in regard to performance pay (or merit pay), you are just another voice with little or no practical experience or knowledge about how performance pay systems work or what they do.

Your arguments assume that performance pay systems are singular in nature (they are actually quite diverse), cause unhealthy competition among teachers (they actually can encourage collaboration), and you selectively present research studies that show inconclusive evidence on the effectiveness of merit pay - even as more and more research emerges that shows a positive effect. I'll direct you to review the Figlio and Kenney studies and the even more recent review of the Houston model by SAS that show a positive independent effect of performance pay as examples. Your research review is incomplete and selective. I'll assume it’s because this was in informal blog posting and not a research paper.

You are correct that the research on performance pay and its effectiveness is still emerging, as are the many varied approaches to performance pay still emerging. In spite of critics who would like to lump all these approaches together and call them "merit pay," there is a great deal of variety in them. It is simply too early to dismiss these approaches as "ineffective."

By contrast, there is a large and established set of research showing that years of experience (past the third year) and higher education credits are terrible measures of teacher quality - but they are almost universally the metrics we use to allocate some 80%+ of the resources we have in education. Its certainly not too early to dismiss the single salary schedule as "ineffective."

Rather than summarily and prematurely dismissing these innovative approaches to using district resources, we should be asking questions, taking reasonable risks, and learning.

Performance pay, along with quality professional development programs, quality leadership, quality student assessment information and data systems, and quality evaluations for teachers and leaders can have a tremendous impact on organizations and student achievement. It’s a synergy.

Is it really that radical an idea that what the students are learning is an integral component in determining the effectiveness of the adult instruction?

Your work in developing PLCs, especially at the secondary level, is exceptional and universally respected. However this review of performance-based pay systems is a myopic side-swipe at best.

Thanks much for entertaining my reply.

Jason Glass
Eagle, CO

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