Lessons from History

Proposals for merit pay are not new. History suggests that this business-oriented reform will meet resistance and fail to achieve its stated goals.

By Larry Cuban and David B. Tyack

Attempts to model the occupation of teaching on business practices have sometimes ignored the rewards that teachers find most important in their classrooms and in their daily relationships with each other. Outsiders’ campaigns to create competition among teachers for merit pay and to erect career ladders for them have rarely succeeded, for they have been out of alignment with the values and practices of teachers. 1

Treating schools as if they were open-market institutions and teachers as if they were employees in competitive organizations has made sense to outsiders, but teachers have often questioned the assumptions underlying this model and opposed it passively or actively. 2

Merit pay and hierarchical career ladders contradicted a reform that teachers themselves fought to install in schools from World War I forward: a single salary schedule for all public school teachers, elementary and secondary, male and female. While supporting salaries calibrated to training and years of experience, teachers opposed “class distinctions” in pay based on position or sex and endorsed “the fundamental intrinsic equality of all good teaching.” To ensure that all teachers were, in fact, professionals, they worked to require special training and certification as prerequisites for employment in teaching. 3

Susan Moore Johnson has commented that each time merit pay became an “educational vogue … it was considered a novel reform.” The present-day call for differentiating the roles and rewards of teachers is only the latest episode in a long history of attempts by outsiders to attract and retain the most gifted instructors, to create meritocratic standards of performance and pay, and to erect hierarchies among teachers. In recent years, many states have passed laws mandating merit pay, career ladders, and other measures to differentiate the functions and rewards of teachers.4

Both in the past and in the present, teachers have mostly resisted such reforms. They have not trusted the ability and fairness of administrators charged with assessing “merit.” They have typically regarded merit pay not as an incentive but as a bother, as a threat to professional comity, and as irrelevant to the chief intrinsic rewards they experienced – seeing their pupils grow intellectually and socially. 5

One instance of open conflict erupted when the school board in Kalamazoo, MI, decided to reward teachers differently in 1974. The American School Board Journal trumpeted the Kalamazoo plan as the end to lockstep pay and unaccountable staff. “Take it from Kalamazoo,” the Journal said: “A comprehensive, performance-based system of evaluation and accountability can work.” This judgment was premature. The merit scheme, in which “nearly everyone evaluated everyone else,” choked on paperwork and provoked frustration, not superior performance. The administrators joined the United Automobile Workers union to fight merit pay, and the teachers union managed to recall six of the seven board members who had supported differential compensation. But repeated experiences like this one in Kalamazoo did not prevent reformers from proposing merit pay again and again. 6

The history of performance-based salary plans has been a merry-go-round. In the main, districts that initially embraced merit pay dropped it after a brief trial; only a small number of districts continued to use merit pay for decades. In the 1950s merit pay became a fashionable idea, and by the 1960s about 10% of districts said they had merit pay. A 1978 national survey found 115 districts (4% of those with more than 300 students) with provisions for payment by performance, and many of these did not in fact pay teachers differentially. When two researchers went back to those districts five years later, they found only 47 still using performance-basedcompensation. These districts tended to be small, to have fairly homogenous student populations, and to employ merit pay in inconspicuous ways. Although there was another resurgence of interest in merit pay in the 1980s, in the mid 1980s more than 99% of teachers were paid on a uniform salary schedule. 7

In 1986, Richard Murnane and David K. Cohen described six districts where merit pay had been in existence for more than five years. In these schools, merit pay was a voluntary addition to the established salary, earned by extra work outside the classroom, and seldom amounted to a large bonus. Teachers helped to shape the rules of the plan. Murnane and Cohen argue that what kept these plans going was precisely that these districts avoided making problematic distinctions between teachers based on their classroom performance. Instead, they used the plan to provide chances for teachers to earn extra money by engaging in school-related activities, such as revamping curriculum or evaluation of students’ work. 8

Why have so few schemes to pay teachers for their performance stuck? Murnane and Cohen argue that merit pay seldom works if its intent is to get teachers to excel, for little agreement exists among administrators and teachers about just what effective teaching is and how to measure it. In part, the complexity of the teaching act foils merit pay. Internal strife erupts over administrators’ judgments when some teachers win “outstanding” marks and others only “average” grades.

Outsiders who pushed merit pay and career ladders often misperceived what in fact motivates teachers to do a better job. Susan Moore Johnson, who actually did ask teachers about incentives and disincentives, found that teachers had good reasons for their opposition to merit pay:

    Promoting competition among colleagues would reduce rather than increase the productivity of schools because teachers would conceal their best ideas and pursue their own interests rather than the general good. Moreover, performance bonuses might perversely reward teachers for success with able students while discouraging efforts with those who progress more slowly. Finally, teachers resented policymakers’ efforts to entice them with the prospects of one-time bonuses for a select few when many teachers held second jobs just to meet basic living expenses. By seeking to provide recognition for exemplary teachers, potentially at the expense of many others, the reforms threatened egalitarian norms that the profession supports.9

Teachers are not afraid of evaluation, she insists: “They perform before exacting critics [their students] every day.” What they dislike is being pitted in competition with each other or judged according to arbitrary standards by people whom they do not particularly trust.

Obviously, teachers care deeply about receiving adequate salaries – they rarely do – and appreciate public recognition and status, but they and the public have quite different perceptions of their sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. When polled in 1981 about what bothered teachers the most, the general public listed poor discipline first and salaries second; teachers listed unfavorable public attitudes toward education first and salaries fourth.

David Tyack is a professor of education and a professor of history at Stanford University. Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, by Larry Cuban and David B. Tyack, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


1 For discussions of the different worlds of teachers and many policymakers, see Neal Gross, Joseph B. Giaquinta, and Marilyn Bernstein, Implementing Organizational Innovations (New York: Basic Books, 1971), and Milbrey McLaughlin, “Learning from Experience: Lessons from Policy Implementation,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 9 ( Summer 1987): 172, 171-178.

2 Linda Darling-Hammond and Barnett Berry, The Evolution of Teacher Policy (Washington, DC: Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession, 1988); William R. Johnson, “Teachers and Teacher Training in the Twentieth Century,” in Donald Warren, ed., American Teachers: Histories of a Profession at Work (New York: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 237-256; U.S. Department of Education, America 2000, p. 13.

3 “The Single Salary Schedule,” School and Society 20 (July 5, 1924): 9, 9-13; “An Unjust Discrimination,” The Journal of the National Education Association 12 (February 1923): 48; in 1921and in successive years the NEA resolved in favor of a single salary schedule – NEA Addresses and Proceedings, 1921, p. 27.

4 Susan Moore Johnson, “Merit Pay for Teachers: A Poor Prescription for Reform,” Harvard Educational Review 54 (May 1984): 179, 175-185; William A. Firestone, Susan H. Fuhrman, and Michael W. Kirst, The Progress of Reform: An Appraisal of State Education Initiatives (New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Policy Research in Education, 1989).

5 Johnson, “Merit Pay.”

6 Richard R. Doremus, “Kalamazoo’s Merit Pay Plan,” Phi Delta Kappan 63 (February 1982): 409-410.

7 Johnson, “Merit Pay”; P. J. Porwoll, Merit Pay for Teachers (Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service, 1979); Susan M.Johnson, “Incentives for Teachers: What Motivates, What Matters?” Educational Administration Quarterly 22 (Summer 1986): 54-79; Richard J. Murnane and David K. Cohen, “Merit Pay and the Evaluation Problem: Why Most Merit Pay Plans Fail and a Few Survive,” Harvard Educational Review 56 (February 1986): 2, 1-17.

8 Murnane and Cohen, “Merit Pay,” pp. 12-15.

9 Susan Moore Johnson, “Redesigning Teachers’ Work,” in Richard Elmore et al., Restructuring Schools: The Next Generation of Educational Reform (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), pp. 125, 128.