Email Status

Volume 12, Number 1
January/February 1996

New Ideas Like Collective Incentives and Skill-Based Pay Raise the Same Old Questions


Incentive-based systems for paying teachers became a hot topic in the 1980s after the publication of A Nation at Risk, which decried the allegedly declining achievement of U.S. schoolchildren. The popularity of incentives among state legislatures and local school boards was fueled by a widely held belief in their logic and simplicity as a tool for improving education: to many policymakers, it seems obvious that money motivates people and that paying all the teachers in a system on a single salary scale, without regard to performance, makes no sense.

Meanwhile, in the research community, there has been almost unanimous agreement that individual teacher incentives—the most common being merit pay—rarely work as they are intended to, for a variety of complex reasons. Now financial incentives to improve schools are again in the news. The states of Kentucky, South Carolina, and Oklahoma and school districts in Dallas, Baltimore, Boston, Denver, and Douglas County, Colorado, have all recently adopted or considered adopting them. Some plans are new versions of the old merit pay idea; others attempt to avoid the pitfalls of individual incentives by rewarding teachers collectively when their schools achieve specified goals.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    D. Cohen and R. Murnane. "The Merits of Merit Pay." The Public Interest no. 80 (Summer 1985): 3-30.

    S. Conley and A. Odden. "Linking Teacher Compensation to Teacher Career Development: A Strategic Examination." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 219-238.

    W. Firestone. "Redesigning Teacher Salary Systems for Educational Reform." American Educational Research Journal 31, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 549-574.

    J. Garcia. "Accountability in Dallas." Catalyst: Voices of Chicago School Reform 7, no. 3 (November 1995): 1, 8-11.

    S. Johnson. "Incentives for Teachers: What Motivates, What Matters." Educational Administration Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Summer 1986): 54-79.

    S. Johnson. "Merit Pay for Teachers: A Poor Prescription for Reform." Harvard Educational Review 54, no. 2 (May 1984): 175-185.

    C. Kelley and A. Odden. "Reinventing Teacher Compensation Systems." CPRE Finance Briefs (Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901); September 1995.

    National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 300 River Pl., Suite 3600, Detroit, MI 48207.