Merit Pay and Cheating in Schools


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A high number of eraser marks signals possible cheating on tests. Photo by Jdurham

Merit Pay Changes Teacher Behavior

Indeed, the promise of financial incentive to meet certain goals changes teacher’s behavior in some situations.

This began with the Texas miracle which resulted in numerous principals being financially rewarded for their less than honest means of meeting certain goals set before them.

But the behavior changes do not start and stop in Texas.

In Atlanta, after a merit pay program was introduced in 2009, educators in just 13 schools racked up near $500,000 in merit pay in just two years.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation found evidence of cheating in 44 out of 56 schools they examined.

In 2006, one Washington DC School started an uphill climb that resulted in improbable results jumping from 10% to 58% proficiency in only 2 years.

Teachers and the principal received $8000 and $10,000 respectively for these amazing gains in 2008 and 2010.

This school is one of 103 public schools that since 2008 investigation have shown a higher than average number of eraser marks on test booklets – over half of all the public schools in Washington DC.

These eraser marks are one way to detect possible cheating. The extremely small odds of this occurrence has prompted many questions, but a small scale investigation in 2009 cleared most schools and teachers from any wrong-doing, and there is considerable resistance to a thorough investigation… yet the question of cheating remains.

Merit Pay for Teachers: What does the Research Say?

One study in Chicago by Mathematica Policy Research showed merit pay had no impact on test scores. A Tennessee study showed negligible benefits – with only fifth grade showing any improvements connected to the merit pay. A Harvard study showed no benefit in New York City, and in fact showed a possible negative impact on middle school scores. A more recent paper from Harvard attempts to explain through a small case study that in fact test scores do improve with merit pay but only when teachers are faced with the loss of pay as opposed to the promise of future pay.

Overall, the concept of merit pay has proven time and again that the most significant change in teacher behavior when faced with the promise of merit pay, is the increased likelihood of cheating on testing day.


Fryer, R. Jr. et. al. Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment(2012). Harvard University. Accessed December 18, 2012.

Gillum, J. and Bellow, M. When Standardized Test Scores Soared in D.C., Were the Gains Real? (2011). USA Today. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

Berridge, A. and Glazerman, S. Early Results Show No Impact of Teacher Advancement Program in Chicago. (2010). Mathematica Policy Research. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

Downey, M. Another Blow for Merit Pay: Long-awaited Tennessee Study Finds No Impact on Student Achievement. (2010) Atlanta Journal Constitution. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

Leung, R. The ‘Texas Miracle’. (2009). CBS News. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

Quaid, L. Obama Education Plan Speech: Stricter Standards, Charter Schools, Merit Pay(2009). Huffington Post. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

Haney, W. The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education(2000). Education Policy Analysis Archives V. 8. Accessed on December 18, 2012.

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