Merit Pay Denounced by N.E.A., But Shanker Willing To 'Consider' It
Washington--When the National Commission on Excellence in Education recently recommended merit pay and other changes in the teaching profession, its members failed to consider the obstacles to reform caused by poor management in the schools, spokesmen for the two national teachers' unions charged last week.
"Here we've got a report that says there's a 'rising tide of mediocrity' but says nothing about school management," said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Teachers will be wary of merit pay, he contended, because schools are "run like an old-fashioned type of factory," where administrators ''don't care whether lessons are good or kids are learning, but they care about bureaucratic paperwork."
In a separate interview, the vice president of the National Education Association (nea), Bernie Freitag, said his union would have difficulty accepting the notion of merit pay "because of the [school] management structure."
Where it has been tried in the past, Mr. Freitag said, "merit pay hasn't worked yet. It has been subjected to a lot of political influence and patronage and abuse."
The excellence commission's recommendation called for teachers' salaries that are "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based."
Decisions regarding salary, promotion, and tenure should be "tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review," the report added.
In addition, the commission recommended a three-tiered "career ladder" for teachers to replace the current salary schedules.
Both union officials said they would prefer to increase the salaries of all teachers--as a means of attracting able individuals to teaching--rather than to rely on school officials to administer merit-pay programs.
Mr. Shanker said he had urged teachers not to reject merit-pay proposals "out of hand." He would be willing, Mr. Shanker said, to consider merit-pay proposals under three conditions: if judgments were made by "somebody teachers had confidence in"; if the plan didn't create a "super salary for some people to keep the majority of teachers at a low salary"; and if the plan "actually helped teachers teach or helped the school perform in a better way."
The nea official, however, said his union was "wary" of merit pay, even on principle, because "we've never seen a plan that had balance, fairness, and objectivity."
The union, he said, recently stepped up its opposition to the merit-pay plan proposed by Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Consideration of the measure was deferred until next year by the state Senate, after lobbying by the nea state affiliate, and the union plans to oppose the measure again next year.
Higher Academic Standards
Both union officials generally praised the commission's call for higher academic standards for students.
"It's almost a comment on our time that you need a national commission to come out with a report that is filled with the obvious," said Mr. Shanker.
Nonetheless, he said he was pleased that "we have a growing consensus that education is in a state of crisis and that the national interest is at stake. That means it will take closer cooperation with the business community and some changes within education itself."
Mr. Freitag said he was pleased to see the commission's "no-cost" recommendations, such as increasing graduation requirements and mandating more homework for high-school students.
Regarding how the nation might pay for potentially costly recommendations--pay increases, longer school days and years--the union officials expressed different points of view.
After studying the report, the nea's research department recently said that implementing all of the commission's recommendations would require a 12-percent increase in state spending, and a 12-percent increase in local spending, for education. Federal support, the nea claimed, would increase from the current $14.9 billion to $22.7 billion.
Mr. Freitag of the nea said the commission's statement that the federal government "has primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education" was consistent with the union's goal of ensuring that the federal government pay one-third of the cost of financing public education. (The current federal share is approximately 8 percent.)
He said he found it "extraordinary" that "a commission called for by [Secretary of Education] Terrel Bell comes down with conclusions for a significant role for the federal government."
Mr. Freitag added that "you can have federal assistance without there being federal control."
Mr. Shanker also said he agreed with the commission's characterization of the federal role. But he interpreted the report to call for "a major but limited role."
He added: "The federal role deals with constitutional issues such as civil rights and situations of national emergency, such as in the Sputnik era and today--issues of competition with other countries."
"The federal government," Mr. Shanker said, "ought to fully fund Title I, education of the handicapped, and so on. But you can't expect these 16,000 school districts to look to the federal government for help all the time."
Mr. Shanker has called for a "national summit meeting" of education, military, business, government, and labor leaders to discuss the recommendations of the commission and other panels that have studied the status of education. The nea has asked the Congress to hold regional hearings on the same issues.