“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



Teacher pay: Many teachers left behind

Alyssa’s recent blog on teacher’s status really hits home. She brings up the issue of teacher’s salaries, which has been nagging me for so long.

This is an issue of global concern. It affects not only less developed nations like my home country of Vietnam but also many wealthy European countries and the United States. The issue of teacher status also comes to mind when searching for what makes my country similar with the U.S. While I did not come up with as many similarities as the differences, some commonalities are really fascinating! One of these commonalities in the field of education is related to public school teachers’ pay. According to the OECD data, average American school teacher salary is approximately US$45,000 per year, higher than the OECD’s average of $37,000.[1]  Meanwhile, a Vietnamese teacher gets around VDN30,000,000 per year (an equivalent US$1,422). But it would make no sense to make such absolute economic comparisons. What I would like to focus on in this blog is a common public concern about teacher salaries and status in the two countries.

When I was young, I read a lot of stories in which teachers would be portrayed as “poor, respected old teachers” who led a very simple but virtuous life. In my childhood, this was understandable simply because Vietnam was in wartime. The national budget was limited and the economy was stagnant. Recently, the country has changed significantly with dramatic progress in economic development. Given that the government has spent significantly on education (about 3.5-4% of GDP), salaries of school teachers are still much lower compared to other professions. Sadly, most teachers can barely survive on their meager salaries. Many attempt to supplement their salaries by having extra jobs or teaching extra classes. Ironically, the notion of “poor, respected teacher” is still taken for granted today, as if once being a teacher, she or he must be poor and lead a simple life. Does it mean that poor teachers are more worthy of being venerated?

I was struck one day by the fact that low teacher pay is not unique to developing countries like Vietnam. Unfair compensation has been the complaint of pre-K-12 teachers in many states of the U.S. for years. Indeed, in contrast to a myth that teachers are overpaid and that teacher’s perks are too ample, the Americans acknowledge ‘the bitter truth of how difficult it is for the teachers to make ends meet.’  And in order to raise a family on one’s salary, over 60 percent of American teachers work outside the classroom. While seeking extra earnings, it is likely that teachers may not be wholeheartedly devoted to their main task of teaching.

Interestingly, just as in Vietnam, low teacher pay has become a real joke amongst friends’ conversations in the U.S. The following reflection from an American teacher also holds true in Vietnam:  “We go out to dinner and everyone takes turns paying, but when it’s my turn, someone always says, ‘Let me get that, you’re a teacher.’  It sounds funny then but, perhaps, no teacher wants to have this kind of treatment in his or her life. Also, no teacher, particularly in the case of Vietnam, wants to learn that parents send the children to extra classes as a way of ‘contributing’ to teacher’s income.

In addition to low income, teachers in both countries are often under great pressure for other reasons. In both countries, they have to work under rigid requirements and have high expectations from parents and society to produce high quality workforce. They take such a very important role in education, but when students’ test scores are low, teachers are the first and only ones to be called bad teachers. Even, many of those teachers face being sacked.

A long-term consequence of low teacher pay comes at a high cost for schools and children, who lose good teachers to better-paying professions. In the U.S., some 20 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession by the end of the first year, and almost half leave within the first five years. Approximately 46 percent quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States US$7.34 billion yearly.

Such high turnover has a devastating effect on schools. In Vietnam, many best and devoted teachers have to leave the profession. Many of those who remain in the teaching career feel demotivated, which obviously affects their effective teaching. Worse, this low pay scenario scares even the bravest students who want to become teachers, leading to further teacher shortage. There was time that teacher education colleges in Vietnam had to lower the entrance scores and exempted tuitions to lure enough students into teaching majors. Not to mention that by doing so, quality of potential teachers was downgraded, the problem of recruiting and retaining teachers remains unsolved. The puzzle of low teacher’s pay and teacher education is even complicated when it comes to teaching condition in the rural and disadvantaged areas.

As said earlier, low teacher pay issue is popular not only in Vietnam or the U.S. It is a global concern, evident in recent strikes for better pay and working conditions in the UK, Iceland, Maldives, and Australia. The Varkey GEMS Foundation’ 2013 Index reveals that 95 percent of the surveyed countries said that teachers should be paid a wage in excess of the actual wage they thought they received.

However, I cannot help but feel that this concern is taken serious in teacher communities only or by those who truly value the work that teachers have to perform in their job. Still, quite a few people hold that teaching is a simple job, because ‘all what teachers do is just repeating from class to class with little modification’. People think that it is a leisurely work, because ‘teachers have much free time: may not teach whole days while enjoying a long summer’. People believe that teacher’s income is quite high, because ‘teachers have high compensations and they may earn a fortune from their private tutoring classes’. And thus, merit pay or market-based pay systems are viewed as novel solutions to teacher pay reforms.

We hope that policy makers who consider teacher pay solutions are not those people. The simple logic they should know is: if the country wants to have highly qualified teachers that is essential to student success, it has to “invest” in them.