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” [1].
  • “About 95 percent of public school districts pay teachers according to years of experience and degrees earned—a traditional “step and lane” salary schedule” [2].
  • The number of public school K-12 teachers in the US is about 3.2 million [3].
  • In 2017-2018, the average public school K-12 teacher’s starting salary in Oklahoma is $32,010 [4].


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

Teaching may contain some element of “a calling” like any other occupation, but at day’s end, it’s a job. If we don’t provide an incentive to attract and keep dedicated educators, then our system will falter. A 2017 Pew Research study concluded that an international measure of STEM success “placed the U.S. 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. Our society is reluctant to evaluate our educational system, but a thoughtful, multifactored merit evaluation system would not only provide impetus to our best teachers but would also push us to think hard about what can make a successful educational system. Seniority and merit are not mutually exclusive, but ineffective outdated teaching is not conducive to bettering teaching environments when the status quo is all that’s required. [Sources: 1,2,3]


There’s a better way to pay teachers in our public schools K-12. They shouldn’t be slaves to test scores, graduation rates, or other “metrics.” Using a single salary schedule instead of numbers made up by politicians will be better for teachers, better for students, and better for 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 currying favor with administrators, accountants, and testing consultants. Kids benefitted from it for a hundred years, before people who aren’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.

It’s time to scrap the idea that schools can be run like businesses, which hasn’t done much good in forty years. We should keep paying teachers by seniority and qualifications in the schools that already have it. We should also convert the schools paying teachers on merit back to paying teachers by seniority and qualifications. [Sources: 1,2,3]

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