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Merit Pay and Better Teaching

by S. Vincent Wilking - 1962

Teaching salaries have risen precipitously. All teachers at a given level of service years inappropriately receive the same pay. The incompetent can't be discharged. Teachers are in short supply, and the best who are leaving the teaching profession in alarming proportions, must be retained. At the same time, the cost of education must not rise too far. The answer? Merit pay.

THERE IS A DEEPLY ingrained conviction among American people that the prime motivator of excellence is money, preferably more money than is being received at any given point in time. This is, of course, the concept of the "economic man," which has been decried both by perceptive labor leaders (1) and many students of business and industry (2). This conviction derives, no doubt, from a further conviction that a business is run solely for profit and that without the profit motive, effective and efficient business would wither away to be replaced by a vast, planned, inefficient bureaucracy.


Schools are the biggest business directed, controlled, and paid for by local communities. School boards are elected by the citizens or appointed by councils chosen by the electorate to assure that the community obtains the best possible education for the children of the community at the lowest possible cost. For at least 25 of the last 30 years, public education has been (like electricity) one of the cheapest items in the family budget. During the last five years, as teachers and the panoply of administrators and supporting staff (3) of the public schools have floated up from their submerged economic status, the cost of public education has risen alarmingly—at least, in contrast to its former pleasantly low cost.

Boards of education have reacted in a manner which is not surprising when one considers the composition of most boards. These people, for the most part, are representatives of the managerial and professional middle class. In the better (i.e., more economically prosperous suburban communities, where teachers' salaries have risen to the highest levels), these board members are typically employees of large and prosperous corporations which have well codified applications of the latest personnel-management convictions on the compensation of intellectual effort. These convictions follow this kind of logic: (a) People work for money, (b) People work harder and better for more money, (c) People should be paid for what they do. (d) Work that is better than average should be paid at better than average pay. (e) It is possible to identify better than average work performance, (f) It is possible to convince people who work at average or less than average levels of performance that this is so.

Against this reasoning, board members view with an increasingly jaundiced eye the yearly meeting with the Teachers' Salary Committee, which asks for an across-the-board increase for all the teachers in the school system without regard for individual competence or individual quality in teaching. Conditioned as board members tend to be, they recoil at the idea that all teachers (at any given level of years of service or degree of academic attainment) are worth the same salaries. They relate this situation immediately to the one which prevails in their own corporate or entrepreneurial experience, and their reaction is normal, given their backgrounds and set of mind.

In the face of increasing teacher-salary costs, what is their suggestion for solution? It is simple. In order to keep the over-all cost of education in the community at reasonable levels, we will pay teachers as we pay people in industry. We will reward the outstanding in an outstanding manner, but we will pay the satisfactory or less than satisfactory at substantially lower rates. (Unfortunately, we can't get rid of the duds because they are protected by tenure—a topic that requires later attention here.)

Thus, what has gone before sets our scene. Teaching salaries have risen precipitously. All teachers at a given level of service years inappropriately receive the same pay. The incompetent can't be discharged. Teachers are in short supply, and the best who are leaving the teaching profession in alarming proportions, must be retained. At the same time, the cost of education must not rise too far. The answer? Merit pay.


The concept of merit pay runs head-on into the most deep-seated antipathies that have ever been inculcated in a professional or occupational group. To understand the origins of this antipathy requires some knowledge and understanding of the economic background of teaching.

Teaching is one of the few occupations in which there are large numbers of well trained, relatively highly educated people of both sexes who are locked into their occupations with little chance of egress. An individual studies in a college of education, gains a degree to teach (along with a teacher's certificate devised by state boards of education), and is then committed to a lifetime of teaching in an elementary or secondary school. Unless the accredited teacher chooses to leave the profession (as the better ones frequently do) or is able to move into school administration, he (more often "she") must face the prospect of essentially the same set of intellectual and menial tasks for the rest of his professional life.

This is not dissimilar to the professions of the law or medicine except that the latter professionals are essentially entrepreneurs who set their own fees, whereas the teacher is almost inevitably a civil servant. The entrepreneurs, aided by their professional associations, are able to set fees at a level commensurate with what the traffic will bear and with what they think they are worth; the teachers must obtain their compensation from a reluctant group of taxpayers.

Many years ago, the excellent teacher had a chance to be promoted out of the ranks of teaching into the ranks of administration, where the pay was higher. Today, this is less often possible because special training in the schools of education is now required for administrative posts. For this and other reasons, the teacher has little chance for promotion. This is in striking contrast with the situation in industry or business with which, far too often, the businessman member of the board of education compares the educational enterprise.

In industry and business, there are few occupational categories of a professional sort that lack egress into higher levels of opportunity. Typically, no one remains in an occupation for any long period of time. The young industrial engineer starts as a foreman and is promoted into engineering staff work; he leaves this occupation for that of senior industrial engineer or goes back into the line as general foreman. In not too long a time, if he is competent, he may become a superintendent and, in due time, a plant manager or chief industrial engineer at the corporate level. This particular chain of promotion only illustrates the many channels of advancement from one's initial occupation that are available to the well trained man (comparable to the well trained teacher) who enters industry. The difference in opportunity is striking because of the multiple opportunities for a diversified application of talent in industry in contrast to those available in teaching.

We have spent some time and some words on this difference because it is a prime reason why the industrial concepts of pay for meritorious performance do not find ready and easy application to teachers. Teachers cannot escape from the imprisonment of occupation to the same degree that the intellectual worker in industry can.


There is another aspect to teaching which teachers seldom realize. In the 1920s and early '30s, they were not secure in their jobs, i.e., they could be fired at the whim of a school administrator, or their salaries could be raised or (more often) lowered as a result of the application of the same or similar whim. (This, of course, is the same whim to which the salaried, unorganized employee in industry is today subjected.) Because of the anguish and pain which resulted from capricious firings and salary determinations, teachers built up their union (under the guise of a professional association) to try to assure that they would attain and retain security of employment. In this they succeeded. Unfortunately, security is the handmaiden of mediocrity. The result today is the typical teachers' salary scale, which has inherent in it at most only two variables—(a) years of service and (b) degrees attained. Both of these alleged measures of competence are objective (just like a true-false or multiple-choice test) but are designed to assure that no qualitative exercise of judgment by superiors will or can take place.

As a result of this success on the part of teachers and their representative professional organizations, they have achieved a degree of job security unmatched by any other professional group in America. There are, of course, other non-professional groups who have achieved similar levels of security, among them truck drivers, postmen, and members of occupations at a similar level. Professionals like physicians and lawyers are still risk-takers, leaving their continued employment in the hands of those who would or would not use their services—the open market of their patients and clients.

But teachers have spent years striving for security. All through the '30s, they strove vigorously for it and, through the tenure laws, achieved it. Now, unfortunately, they are striving for roulette's double-red: They want both absolute security of tenure in position and a salary level usually tied to considerable risk. They want to be regarded as professionals like doctors and lawyers (who, when we consider them soberly, are entrepreneurs who take high risks) but also want to retain their security like postmen (who don't make high salaries). Whether they are aware of the internal inconsistency of their current aspirations is doubtful. If they are not aware, then they are fighting a battle without knowledge of all the critical factors and, to that degree, are not properly prepared to make their fight an effective one.

Once both parties, the teachers on the one hand and the taxpayers through their representatives on boards of education on the other, are fully aware of these issues, there may be, probably for the first time, a chance to consider teacher performance and teacher compensation soberly and dispassionately. Up to now, the problem has generated considerably more emotionalism than considered judgment of what is best for the community, what is best for the teacher, and how these apparently opposing considerations can be reconciled for the common good.


Even though most teachers would be loath to give up the practice of appraising the performance of their pupils, they resist with unimagined vigor the idea that, like their pupils, their performance should be appraised by administrators, staff personnel, peers, or pupils. This attitude stems in part from long-past administrative practices in which merit pay was common in the public schools. During this period, the appraisal of performance as the qualifying basis for extra or "merit" pay was all too often done capriciously or on bases that were quite unacceptable to the teachers involved. As a result of this type of treatment, the teachers understandably turned against merit pay and, at the same time, against the idea that their performance should or could be evaluated.

There were, of course, sound reasons why the teachers could say that their work was too complex and too creative for outside appraisal. As late as the middle '50s, there were few if any soundly based attempts at properly and functionally defining the teacher's job. Such definitions as existed tended to confuse the job with personality and other characteristics of the teacher himself. It could be said, under these conditions, with justice, "How can anyone appraise or evaluate what has never been defined?" Without a clear-cut definition of what the teacher was supposed to do and without any standards of performance related to the results that could be reasonably expected from the successful discharge of teaching responsibilities, it was difficult if not impossible to say with any conviction that any given teacher's performance could be responsibly assessed. One needs a criterion, a model, or a standard in order to make a judgment of worth. Without a standard, any possibility of objective appraisal of observed performance is nil.

The last few years have seen some breakthrough in the area of teacher job definition. These definitions have tended to gain teacher acceptance to the degree that the teachers themselves participated in the definition of their job. Any attempt to impose a definition administratively has usually failed. The format of definition which has appeared to be most appropriate is one modeled after a kind applied successfully to senior executive and administrative positions in business and industry (4).

Of course, the definition of the teaching job is only the first step in the process of appraisal of performance. Other necessary elements must deal with questions like these: Who will do the appraising? How often must performance be observed in order to make sound appraisals? How can consistency between appraisers be attained? How can the teacher be included in the appraisal process so that he can best improve his performance?

All these issues are central to the over-all problem of performance appraisal. They must be studied and resolved, preferably with a large group of the teachers in the system in which appraisal is contemplated. Teachers must feel that they have played a large and constructive part in the determination of the area of responsibility in which they will work and be judged. Failing this, most systems of appraisal will fail because teachers, not having participated, tend to reject imposed standards, have no commitment to exercise self-control in the achievement of standards, and have little incentive to grow and to improve their performance—the only sound reason for appraising in the first place.


Earlier, we alluded to the attitude of the business community concerning the effectiveness of money as a motivator for improved performance. We tend to question the validity of this point of view even in the business community and believe that, for teachers, more money per se will not improve the performance of the teacher who receives it.

It is an interesting observation that the economic rewards of work are seldom, if ever, enjoyed while at work. Salaries are spent off the job in maintaining a level of living in a community; vacation pay cannot be enjoyed on the job; one has to leave the job in order to receive sickness benefits; the enjoyment of retirement benefits, of course, means the end of work. So, except as to the degree that monetary returns may create future peace of mind, economic rewards do not contribute directly to superior job performance. The strong motivations for good and superior job performance must be found in the work place and must arise out of the nature of the work being done and the environment in which it is done.

If this is so, why do teachers join unions and support their national and state professional associations and their salary committees so vociferously in an attempt to gain, each year, more money? Probably for the same reason that unions of workers do, and for the same reasons that executives are bargaining individually with their employers for greater salaries, bonuses, deferred payments, and stock options.

They want more money because they want to improve their standard of living—live in a better house, obtain better schooling for their children, and enjoy more amenities in the form of club memberships, opportunities to travel, and the ownership of a bigger or better automobile. They want to acquire and retain the material symbols which denote status and confer prestige.

Teachers want to keep up with their business and professional Joneses. This is a completely normal and laudable goal, but, as we have stated before, this objective is incompatible with and in conflict with the other goal of achieving a high degree of job security.

We need not belabor this point further, but we must consider with care—and separate from the money issue—just what it is about the teacher's work that motivates him to improved performance or keeps him just plugging along, performing satisfactorily or less than satisfactorily.


Much has been said by and for teachers concerning the classification of their work as professional. No more than forty years ago, however, there was little if any acceptance by the community in general of the proposition that public school teaching constituted a professional activity.

It is a precondition for any activity described as professional that it can be done by people who are not subject to economic privation to the point where they lack the basic requirements for cultured and reasonably comfortable living. It is a corollary that anyone engaged in a profession must not have sheer profit or the accumulation of money as the primary goals of his work.

For too many years, teachers have been striving to attain two contradictory objectives. One is the achievement of sufficient compensation to allow them to live comfortably and be free of excessive economic worry. The other is the achievement of professional status. In order to achieve the first goal, they have often been compelled to act as though they were not professional; to achieve the second, they have had to indulge far too frequently in protestations of professionalism that contrast adversely with the behavior required in the pursuit of their first goal. This has been the teachers' dilemma.

It may be helpful to review, for a moment, the characteristics of professionalism. Many have struggled with the definition of a profession ever since it was agreed that there were three—medicine, law, and the priesthood. Dr. William E. Wickenden (5) of the Case Institute of Technology has probably summarized the characteristics of a profession as well or better than anyone. He indicates that a profession is (a) a type of activity which is marked by high individual responsibility and which deals with problems on a distinctly intellectual plane, (b) characterized by a motive of service as distinguished from exclusive preoccupation with making profits, (c) directed by a motive of self-expression which implies a joy and pride in one's work and a self-imposed high standard of workmanship, and (d) a conscious recognition of social duty, expressed, among other ways, by guarding the standards and ideals of one's occupation and advancing it in public understanding and esteem, by sharing advances in professional knowledge, and by rendering free public service in addition to that for ordinary compensation.

Even though low salaries in the past have failed to attract the best possible candidates for teaching, even though teachers colleges have been considered inferior scholastic institutions by many members of the faculties of liberal arts colleges and universities, even though teachers and professors of education seem to be over-preoccupied with methods of teaching to the subordination of what is to be taught, even though advanced degrees in education are considered inferior to those in the liberal arts—in spite of all these negatives, a substantial number of teachers are clearly professionals in terms of Wickenden's definition. These are the teachers who find their strongest motivation for superior performance within the framework of their day-to-day teaching work and in their professional activities. These teachers, like good business executives and like other professional people, work best when they know, understand, accept, and participate in the determination of the objectives, policies, and plans which serve to focus and direct their activities.


It is the "professional" teacher who is least interested in "merit pay" and tends to scorn it as a force which would move him to improved performance. For him, the challenges of the work he does, the children with whom he deals, the attainment of professional standards, all are forces inherent in his job which are continually active and continually move him to better performance. To him the money attached to merit pay has no causal relationship to performance improvement. These elements are unrelated. Of course, like all professionals, he hopes for and accepts a salary that allows him a high physical and cultural standard of living. He tends to see that with the injection of differential pay for differential performance a non-professional element is inserted into the work situation that may work against an easy and cooperative sharing among teachers of ideas, methods, and techniques; it may, instead, lead to the secretive development of flashy gimmicks that will attract untutored administrative attention and serve the sole purpose of establishing eligibility for "merit" pay.

Part of the professional's feeling probably arises out of his own perception that not all teachers are professionals or ever likely to become professionals. They are the pedestrian technicians of the teaching trade, and quite possibly, they have been the ones who have emphasized their need for money over and above whatever strivings they have invested in true professionhood. As a result, two things have happened. First, the professionals see no need for "merit pay" as a means for stimulating them to improved performance. Second, the technicians resist merit pay because they know that in competition with the professionals they will never make the grade and therefore never receive the extra compensation.

Consequently, if we accept an obvious oversimplification, the two major groups into which all teachers fall for completely different reasons join forces and vigorously resist differential pay. They also join forces to assure that the economic substratum of a non-differentiated salary scale is both high enough and going higher to insure comfort and lack of worry.


From what we have said so far, one might conclude that the case against merit pay and the appraisal of performance is watertight. This is not so. It is not so because no group of people, and particularly people who derive their income from the public purse, can work and perform without regard to the demands and resources of the society they serve. Further, all that has been said here also underscores some other points, among them the fact that the imposition of merit pay from above does not work and the fact that to start with merit pay as a motivator of improved performance is both wrong and ineffectual.

To face reality, three things must be recognized. First, teaching performance can and must be improved, and there are not enough teachers capable of improving without guidance and coaching. Second, there is a bottom to the community's purse. As a result, taxpayers are resisting further across-the-board increases. Finally, the exceptional teacher is still being lured away from the profession in fairly large numbers by what much higher industrial salaries will afford them in amenities and luxuries.

There has, we think, now been enough experience, both successful and unsuccessful, to provide a sound proposal for the attainment of the only apparently inconsistent goals of improved performance, deceleration in teaching costs to be borne by taxpayers, and monetary reward for the extraordinary teacher without arousing loud outcries of opposition from all teachers.

The first goal is to establish an administrative climate which will allow the sound and equitable appraisal of teaching performance. What are the elements of this climate? Administration in the school and school system must be so organized that the administrator can devote a major portion of his time and thought to the improvement of teaching performance. This means not only the determination of optimum administrative organization but also the restructuring of the individual administrator's job so that he can reallocate his energies and emphasis. In addition and as an example, administrative salaries should be determined by such reasonably sound tools as job evaluation and merit advances, based on a sound appraisal of performance instituted for each administrator.

The second goal consists of the development of appraisal procedures with the collaboration of the school system's teachers. Their commitment requires both their participation and their most creative contributions.

The third goal is the assurance that observations connected with performance appraisal are sufficient in number and perceptive enough in depth to assure a sound factual base for sound appraisal. This includes the requirement that all appraisers operate within the same evaluative frame of reference and that they are well enough trained to deserve the respect of the teachers whom they are appraising.

The fourth goal is the development and use of counseling techniques between teacher and appraiser that will be constructively oriented toward teacher growth and improvement. This may include the matching of a teacher's self-appraisal against an administrator's appraisal. In any event, this process should continue long enough to assure that appraisals are done effectively, that teachers find that the appraisals are sound, thoughtful, and helpful, and that there is, in fact, an improvement in teacher performance.

When we say that this process should continue long enough, we envisage a period of two to three or more years during which the focus is entirely on teacher growth with no thought given to differential monetary rewards or merit pay.

The fifth goal involves rewarding extraordinary performance with extraordinary compensation. If the four antecedent goals have been attained, it is more than likely that teachers themselves, assured of reasonable basic salary scales, will ask for or at least acquiesce gracefully in the payment of extra compensation for superior performance.


1. Golden, C., & Ruttenberg, H. Dynamics of industrial democracy. New York: Harpers, 1942.

2. McGregor, p. The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960.

3. Mayer, M. The schools. New York: Harpers, 1961.

4. Reed, R. von S. A blueprint for merit rating. School Exec., 1958, 77 (No. 10), 52-55.

5. Wickenden, W. E. The second mile. New York: Engineers Council for Professional Development, 1949.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 63 Number 4, 1962, p. 297-304
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3090, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:26:48 AM

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