How Much Support Is There for Merit Pay?

In the latest Phi Delta Kappan (PDK) poll, 72 percent of the population said they favored merit pay, up from 65 percent in 1984. In the latest Education Next poll, however, my colleagues and I found that only 43 percent support merit pay, down from 45 percent in 2007.  Which poll should be believed by the folks in the U. S. Department of Education who are trying to implement Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” initiative that includes a merit pay requirement?

Both, as it turns out.  The two polls don’t really disagree. The Ednext poll offers those surveyed the opportunity to say they neither support nor oppose the idea, an option selected by 30 percent of the total. (The PDK poll has a “don’t know” category but only 7 percent make use of it.) Among those in the Ednext poll, 60 percent favored merit pay.

That percentage is still less than the 72 percent supporting merit pay, according to   PDK. But the remaining difference can be easily explained by question wording.  PDK asked about “the idea of merit pay for teachers.”  That might be considered loading the deck in favor of the idea, as the question says nothing about how merit is to be determined. And who can be against merit?

The Ednext poll is worded more stringently, forcing those surveyed to embrace the use of tests as a basis for paying teachers: “Do you favor or oppose basing a teacher’s salary, in part, on his or her students’ progress academic progress on state tests?”

The tougher wording can easily shift opinion 10 percentage points.

Take away points:  Opinion on merit pay has yet to consolidate in one direction or another, as a lot of people have yet to make up their mind. And the idea loses a bit of traction when it becomes clear that student performance on state tests is part of the merit pay equation. Yet by any measure support for merit pay outweighs the opposition.  Both polls show that.

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