Throughout the teacher pay battles over the last couple of years, conservative lawmakers and teacher advocates clashed over the notion of merit pay. Is there a form of merit pay that both sides could agree to?

In 2008, Education researchers Gary Ritter and Nathan Jensen set out to create a merit pay plan that actually works. They worked with a charter district in Arkansas, where three schools have adopted the plan they designed.[i] They came to five basic recommendations: 

1. Get teacher, staff, and administrator buy-in.

In order for a new system to work, the people involved—namely teachers—must be on board. Ritter and Jensen involved every teacher and administrator in developing the new system, so that everyone felt ownership over the final result.

2. Make the program motivating and productive.

The authors argue that a successful program has to be:

  • Attainable – based on student growth, rather than achievement (so the schools would look at relative scores instead of absolute scores).
  • Transparent – a clear and fair system that teachers could understand and trust.
  • Substantial – “If we want teachers to take merit pay seriously, we should be discussing plans that offer substantial awards – in the neighborhood of 10% to 20% of base salary – to outstanding educators.”[ii]
  • Sustainable – Recurring merit rewards, rather than a one-time bonus, to encourage continued efforts.

3. Make the program part of a school improvement strategy. 

This Arkansas charter pay program assesses student performance several times throughout the year, instead of just at the end. That way, teachers can identify problem areas and course correct before the year ends. That also means that there are no surprises for students when they take their finals, and no surprises for teachers when their bonuses get determined.

4. Encourage collaboration.

Avoid a system based on teacher rankings. Ritter and Jensen’s program includes school-wide student achievement growth as one of its performance metrics. This way, the program motivates teachers to work together, and protects against unhealthy competition among teachers for bonuses.  

5. Use multiple measures of teacher effectiveness.

Any successful merit pay program should include non-test score measures to evaluate its teachers. These alternative measures could include after-school program involvement, extra time spent working with parents, or favorable principal evaluation. 

“In the end, when done correctly, merit pay programs can do more than just reward teachers for excellent work. They can also result in a more collaborative, student-focused learning environment.”[iii]

Perhaps this Arkansas experiment can be a roadmap for a more productive conversation about merit pay in North Carolina.


[i] Ritter, Gary W. and Jensen, Nathan C. (2010). The Delicate Task of Developing an Attractive Merit Pay Plan for Teachers. Phi Delta Kappan.
[ii] See note i.
[iii] See note i