“Merit Pay” in Education

Recent blogs by Alyssa and Hang on teacher salaries made me think of the merit pay system, a term which appears frequently in the context of education reform. Originally, merit pay was defined as “an approach to compensation that rewards the higher performing employees with additional pay or incentive pay” in business. [1] Since the mid-1980s, merit pay has been used to connect teachers’ performance with salaries in the United States schools. [2] Currently, it has been in use in some other countries such as United Kingdom and China.

First, merit pay is performance-related pay which means a bonus for a good teachers’ performance. And teachers’ performance is measured by “students test scores”. [3] It is understandable that people may be motivated by higher salaries, and teachers are not an exception. In other words, merit pay system aims to motivate teachers to improve themselves and put more efforts into teaching. At the same time, merit pay system can create a competitive environment among teachers, whereby teachers compete with each other through students’ grades. With this system, the most ideal outcome would for students to have good grades and for teachers to teach efficiently.

However, while merit pay is increasingly used in schools in different countries, it also receives some criticism. Joe Bower, a teacher from Canada, explains why he thinks merit pay is a bad idea for education systems. One of his main arguments is that merit pay requires the education systems to pursue measurements such as standardized testing, and additionally encourages teachers who have chosen a career of public-service to focus on extra rewards such as pay. [4] Meanwhile, he thinks that merit pay will change teachers’ attitudes towards students, which means teachers will regard students as test scores increasers instead of real students. [4]


Merit pay transforms education into business and it is difficult to imagine how teachers work in a business environment.Schools are not like companies which can make much profit to support the merit pay plan; on the contrary, the financial budget is a problem for the education system. In some Texas school districts, the merit pay system disappeared because of the financial budget. It is not difficult for teachers to increase students’ test scores because of the motivation of rewards, meaning that plenty of money is necessary to continue. At the same time, Angeles Davis, president of NEA-Dallas, thinks “Some teachers wind up being punished for reasons beyond their control because not all students are good test takers.” [6] The Texas example illustrates that completely putting merit pay system into education is still questionable and needs more consideration.

I agree with these criticisms to some degree. I am from China, I have seen a lot about how students fight for their continuous examinations. Chinese students receive too much pressure from the standardized tests, although it is true that the tests are necessary in current Chinese education system to select excellent students from a large population.

The research shows that merit pay was first introduced into Chinese educational system in 2009, which only has a five-year history. [5] For a Lehigh graduate level class Self and Groupswhich I took in 2013 fall semester, I was required to do a research project related to education change. I chose a Chinese middle school where my mother teaches as my focus, and did some research on changes in the last decade. During that research, I found out that merit pay is closely related to teachers’ salaries, which interested and surprised me much. The situation of merit pay system in China is quite different from other countries. In the middle school which I researched, the merit pay system was not based on teachers’ performance or students’ grades too much. The main determinant of merit pay is the longer the teacher has taught, the more pay he or she will receive.

In the Chinese case, the merit pay is not a “real” merit pay. Rather, it has been modified to fit the particular Chinese education environment. According to the exam-oriented education system, Chinese students and teachers are always facing intense examinations.in this contest, students care much about their grades and rankings, and teachers care much about the class rankings. For both students and teachers, there is so much pressure that additional (financial) stimulation is perhaps not needed.

I also think that merit pay has become an excuse in order to attract public attention to education, motivating more people to become teachers. Gradually, teacher is becoming a desired job in China. Nevertheless, I also think it will cause some conflicts among old teachers and new teachers in the future if no changes happen to the merit pay system. Currently, teachers receive merit pay according to their teaching experience, which means older teachers would receive more money than new teachers, although new teachers may have good teaching performances. It seems unfair to those new teachers who perform well in their teaching, which is a potential threat for the merit pay plan in China.

While introducing merit pay into education system may have some benefits. We have to admit that it creates many problems, such as the increasing pressure on teachers and students and the financial burden on the educational system. Whether the merit pay in China will continue or disappear (like in Texas) in the future remains unknown.



[1] Healthfield, M. S. Merit pay rewards performance. Revived from http://humanresources.about.com/od/salaryandbenefits/g/merit-pay.htm

[2] Morrison, N. (2013). Merit pay for teachers is only fair. Revived from http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2013/11/26/merit-pay-for-teachers-is-only-fair/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merit_pay

[4] http://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/merit-pay-bad-idea-won’t-die

[5] http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90776/90785/6746707.html



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