Should teachers K-12 be compensated by merit or by seniority?


Fact Box

  • A Vanderbilt study of over 19,000 research reports on merit pay systems “found overall that the presence of a merit pay program was associated with a modest, but statistically significant, positive effect on student test scores.”
  • “About 95 percent of public school districts pay teachers according to years of experience and degrees earned—a traditional ‘step and lane’ salary schedule.”
  • The number of public school K-12 teachers in the United States is about 3.2 million.
  • As of December 2022, the average public school salary in the US was $55,873, but it generally ranges between $46,662 and $68,136.

Ivan (Merit)

Our culture has created a supposed reward system for teachers where seniority takes precedence over merit and ability. The educational system in the US is full of wonderful, thoughtful, innovative teachers who put effort daily into their lessons and take on the tasks of making schools run and students successful (through tutoring, coaching, committees, administration, etc.). However, the fear of legal repercussions by those being evaluated reduces the effectiveness of merit evaluation systems, allowing lazy and incapable teachers to ride out the years and receive the same compensation as our educational system’s most valuable assets. This is very disheartening to those who put in the effort and achieved good results. 

Teaching may contain some element of “a calling” like any other occupation, but ultimately, it’s a job. If we don’t provide an incentive to attract and keep dedicated educators, then the system will falter. A 2017 Pew Research study concluded that an international measure of STEM success “placed the US an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science.” The same study places us behind 23 other countries in reading metrics. 

There’s no easy fix, and test scores, graduation rates, or any other simple metric is not the answer. A thoughtful reevaluation of our educational system would find that evaluation on merit would not only provide support and recognition for our best teachers but would also weed out the teachers who are a burden to schools, unequipped and unqualified to teach the next generation of Americans. Seniority and merit are not mutually exclusive; however, ineffective, outdated teaching is detrimental to thriving learning environments as it handicaps students and maintains a low-level status quo.

Michael (Seniority)

There’s a better way to pay teachers in our public schools K-12. They shouldn’t be slaves to results, such as high test scores, graduation rates, or other “metrics.” Using a single salary schedule instead of numbers made up by politicians will be better for teachers, students, and communities. Sure, paying teachers on merit works. It lets some teachers earn higher salaries than others if they satisfy the criteria for a salary increase. But this doesn’t mean better learning. It often results in “teaching to the test.” If a teacher’s salary depends on their kids getting higher test scores, teachers will deliver higher test scores, even if that means giving kids the answers.

If we really want our kids to learn, we should return to a universal single salary system, which lets teachers do their jobs instead of earning favor with administrators, accountants, and testing consultants. Kids benefited from it for a hundred years before people who weren’t teachers decided to change the rules. It’s no accident that the rise in complaints about student performance, failing schools, and the decline of teachers’ unions coincided with a shift to paying teachers like salesmen.

America should continue paying teachers by seniority and qualifications in the schools that already have it while converting the schools paying teachers on merit back to paying teachers by seniority and qualifications. It’s time to scrap the idea that schools can be run like businesses and instead support the most dedicated and senior school professionals.

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