Published Online: September 14, 2010

Poll: Americans in Favor of Teacher Merit Pay

More than 70 percent of Americans believe that teachers should be paid based on the merits of their work rather than on a standard-scale basis according to a recent survey conducted by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup.

The annual PDK/Gallup Poll surveyed more than 1,000 Americans—77 percent of them over the age of 40—about their thoughts on public school education. While the poll shows declining support for President Obama’s education agenda, it highlights a strong public interest in bolstering teaching quality.

Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that "improving the quality of our teachers" is the most important national education program—placing it ahead of initiatives such as "developing demanding education standards," "creating better tests," and "improving the nation's lowest-performing schools."

Are Teacher Evaluations Fair?

The PDK/Gallup poll's findings on teacher merit pay raise the question of how teacher performance can be effectively evaluated. That topic has received a lot of attention recently. Some examples:

• Last year, we reported on study showing that, as currently practiced, many teacher evaluations failed to provide useful information.

• The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, recently spoke out against evaluations as a "gotcha" tool, calling for "fair, meaningful, and good" evaluations.

• And a Los Angeles Times series analyzing teacher effectiveness in connection with student test scores has created a firestorm.

• Meanwhile, Teacher blogger Anthony Cody has said, teachers aren't afraid of accountability-based evaluations; they just want to ensure that the evaluations are fair.

The poll also shows that, over the past 25 years, Americans have become more comfortable with the idea of merit pay for teachers. In 1983, only 61 percent of those surveyed believed that teachers should be paid on the basis of their performance. In 2010, that number is 71 percent. While 8 percent of the respondents were unsure of how they felt about teacher merit pay in 1983, only 2 percent remain uncertain in 2010.

But, while the majority of those surveyed were supportive of merit-based pay, the poll found respondents more factionalized on how they believed teacher performance should be evaluated and measured.

In 2000, 25 percent of the nation believed a teacher's salary should be "very closely tied" to his or her student's achievements. In 2010, that number has fallen to 19 percent. On the other hand, the percentage of Americans who believe teacher salaries and student performance should be "somewhat closely tied" has jumped from 35 percent in 2000 to 54 percent today.

At the same time, Americans appear to see teacher-evaluation systems as more than just ways to gauge performance. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed said evaluations should primarily be used to help teachers improve their craft, while only 26 percent think evaluations should be primarily used to "document ineffectiveness that could lead to dismissal."

America's perception of teachers also appears to be on the rise. In 2003, over 60 percent of those polled believed that their local public school had a difficult time recruiting quality teachers; that number has fallen to 48 percent in 2010. Furthermore, 71 percent of the respondents said that they had trust and confidence in the men and women teaching in public schools.

Finally, when respondents were asked to choose three words to describe the teacher who had the most positive impact in his or her life, the word "caring" was most commonly named, followed by "encouraging," "interesting," "personable," and "of high quality."

As the writers of the survey note, "these reactions offer great advice for principals to consider the next time they hire a teacher."

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