Merit Pay for Teachers: A Review Page: 1
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MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS
In most societies, the acquisition of money is a symbol of success. The present supply as
well as the quality of public school teachers in the United States is directly related to the
salaries that are paid to teachers as compensation for services rendered. How much to pay
teachers for their services, who should be given merit pay, and how a pay plan should be
administered are the focal points of an issue that promises to promote debate in the forth-
coming presidential election.
In schools, pay typically is thought of as a reward for performing a number of functions
that contribute to student learning. It is a primary reward that is used to help teachers feel
satisfied with their work, motivate them, gain their commitment to a school or school
district, and keep them in the system. The impact of pay upon job satisfaction, motivation,
and commitment basically is psychological, and pay, therefore, may affect attitudes, behav-
ior and the quality of education that children receive.
At least three recent reports on public school education, including the report of the Na-
tional Commission on Excellence in Education, have endorsed the concept of merit pay for
teachers. In addition, a proposal to create a Master Teacher Program was developed by
Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander; a merit pay proposal also was endorsed by President
Reagan in several recent speeches.
As one might expect, however, merit pay proposals, including the Alexander plan, have
not found universal favor among teacher groups, although the National Education Associa-
tion and The American Federation of Teachers have reacted to recent plans with more
openness than they have displayed in the past.
The concept of merit pay is not a new idea in public school education. In fact, School
Superintendent Frank E. Spaulding initiated a merit program in the school of Newton,
Mass. in 1904. For years many colleges and universities have rewarded professors on the
basis of some form of merit pay plan.
Teacher Salaries: A Recent History
Attempts to avoid deficit spending or increased taxation have caused legislators in many
states to reduce funding for public education. Moreover, the taxpaying public, disenchanted
by continued reports of the poor quality of schools, repeatedly has thwarted attempts to
increase property taxes, a primary source of school support. Because salaries of instructional
staff account for nearly 65 percent of total public school costs, this trend has caused class-
room teachers and public school administrators to be concerned. There is growing pressure
for staff reductions, larger classes and a pay system that does not reward poor student
During the ten-year period between 1969-70 and 1979-80, the average salary of the
nation's teachers increased by $7,366, or 6.3 percent per year, compounded and based on
the 1969-70 average of $8,635. If we estimate an average increase in the consumer price
index of 8 percent a year (also compounded) for the same period, the annual decrease in
purchasing power for teachers is 1.7 percent per year, or a decrease of 17 percent for the
decade. In 1969 dollars, this amounts to $7,167 for a loss of $1,468 in purchasing power.
Regional salary differences also exist. The average teacher salary in the Great Lakes region
is $16,624; in New England $16,296; in the Mideast $17,987; in the Southwest $14,076; in
the Rocky Mountains $15,226, and in the Far West $18,678. In the Southwest region,
Texas ($14,000) ranks below Arizona ($15,835) and ahead of New Mexico ($13,915) and
As is frequently the case, averages conceal a large amount of variation. For example,
teachers in Oak Park, Ill., earn $8,000 more than other Illinois teachers, and a teacher in
Cobb County, Ga. receives $5,000 less than a teacher in Atlanta (Ornstein, 1980).
While future projections are difficult to determine because of the uncertainties of the
economy and taxpayer attitudes, the average salary nationally for teachers in 1983 will be
approximately $23,100; by 1990 it will be approximately $31,300. Whether or not these
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Muro, James F. Merit Pay for Teachers: A Review, pamphlet, December 1983; [Denton, Texas]. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc83299/m1/3/: accessed October 16, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT College of Education.