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Measuring What Matters: Rethinking Teacher Compensation in America

By Ashley Chang

With the United States continuously harboring some of the top universities globally, from the Ivy League to the University of California system, education would be expected to be a top national priority. Despite consistent pushes for education, the teachers responsible for educating students and future generations remain severely underpaid. Our education system is underfunded, where teachers trusted to teach the country’s youth earn nearly $20,000 below the national median income[1]. How can we as a society demand so much of our teachers yet provide and compensate them so inadequately? One proposed solution is the Pay for Performance policy to incentivize teachers based on measurable performance outcomes.

The Pay for Performance policy aims to compensate teachers according to student scores on standardized tests and exams, intended to motivate higher achievement. As advocates argue, “[p]erformance-based pay systems offer teachers a reward based on meeting set performance measures typically tied to student performance. These measures are based on educational research and are a set of best practices intended to boost overall student outcomes” [2]. However, despite seemingly good intentions, the Pay for Performance policy is ineffective by emphasizing test scores over actual learning and provides an unfair analysis that perpetuates socioeconomic and racial discrimination.

If implemented, some teachers may receive pay increases, but ultimately student learning is put at risk. As evidenced in experimental Pay for Performance systems, “only a few teacher PFP programs have improved student learning…most have not,” with the “median effect size on learning across education impact evaluations in low- and middle-income countries [being] about a 0.1 SD increase” [3]. This data shows limited learning improvements from the policy, as pay based on measured performance remains subjective given variances in student aptitudes and environmental factors. With pay incentives tied heavily to scores, teachers may even feel pressure to act dishonestly. Globally, “[t]wenty percent of PFP programs reported adverse effects such as cheating or teachers teaching to the test during implementation” [3]. When motivated by compensation rather than student development, teachers would be more motivated to teach according to tests and standardized assessments rather than promote holistic understanding that may not be reflected in scores.

Additionally, the costs of Pay for Performance outweigh the potential benefits. A majority of Pay for Performance funding goes towards teacher training [4]. For example, the Alaska Public School Performance Incentive Program needs to account for a “Training portal, Performance Data Management System, Collaboration Symposium, Educator Effectiveness Workshop, National Conference and Training” [4]. Considering the training needs to scale a state-wide Pay for Performance policy, many lower-income school districts likely could not afford participation, creating inherent inequities. Alternatively, states absorbing costs would mean fewer resources for existing academic programs. The policy also lacks sustainability, as “only 33 percent of evaluated teacher PFP programs in low and middle-income countries were sustained beyond the evaluation period…and only one of these showed positive and significant impacts on student achievement (Chile)” [3]. Despite a more developed education system and wealthier economy, U.S. states have similarly low retention rates as the nations in which Pay for Performance models were tested. A program was piloted in New York but was stopped after the evaluation period, and given the numerous flaws continued implementation elsewhere seems unrealistic [5].

Therefore, California’s education system would likely not benefit from adopting a Pay for Performance policy. As implemented elsewhere, reliance on test scores rather than teaching quality proves limiting. Rather, teachers generally warrant higher universal pay in acknowledgment of their invaluable societal roles. As experts advise, optimal reforms would situate “differential pay policies within a comprehensive strategy for reforming how teachers are recruited, evaluated, trained, compensated, and retained.” [6] Nuanced refinements accounting for diversity across Californian districts would better serve all students statewide. In low-income areas facing ingrained challenges, punitive pay structures risk worsening existing disparities.

With evidence showing negligible learning improvements, high costs, and sustainability issues, Pay for Performance merits rejection in favor of systemic, equitable pay reform valuing teachers’ dedication to tomorrow’s leaders.


Works Cited

  1. “Teachers in the US Face Low Pay Relative to Their Level of Education.” USAFacts, 28 March 2023,
  2. Meador, Derrick. “Performance Based Care for Teachers,” ThoughtCo, 27 September 2018,,to%20boost%20overall%20student%20outcomes
  3. Beteille, Tara, Mary E. Breeding, and David Evans. “Teacher Pay for Performance: Does It Really Work?,” World Bank, May 4, 2021,
  4. Alaska Council of School Administrators. “Increasing Performance and Retention in Alaska’s Rural Schools,”
  5. RAND Corporation. “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Teacher Pay-for-Performance,”
  6. Chait, Robin. “Current State Policies that Reform Teacher Pay,” American Progress, November 5, 2007,

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