New N.E.A. Head Discusses Union's Views on Pay Plans
Various proposals to reorganize salary systems for teachers--to link pay raises and promotions to measured performance--have attracted considerable attention, politically and professionally, in recent weeks. Three recently released reports on schooling have each addressed the topic, as has President Reagan in several public statements.
The National Education Association (nea) represents 1.6 million teachers and constitutes a major voice in the debate on the issue; the President has agreed to meet with the association's leadership to discuss the topic. Don Cameron, who succeeded Terry Herndon as executive director of the union on June 1, spoke last week with Assistant Editor Thomas Toch about the nea's positions on the so-called merit-pay and master-teacher concepts.
Mr. Cameron, who began his career as a history teacher in Michigan, has worked for the nea for 20 years, most recently as assistant executive director.
QWhat is your definition of a so-called 'merit-pay' concept?
AMerit pay, in [nea members'] minds, means the subjective evaluation of performance in the classroom by a school administrator or some other person. This is unacceptable because it involves the personal bias of the administrator or whoever else does the evaluation. ... But ... superior teachers ought to be given in some way, shape, or fashion additional status or money or something.
The nea doesn't have problems with incentive pay--for going back to school, for teaching in the inner cities, for teaching year-round, for teaching a longer day, or any number of those kinds of provisions. And the master-teacher plans being promulgated in some parts of the country have components that our teachers don't object to.
QBut the nea has traditionally been staunchly opposed to merit-pay and master-teacher plans. About three weeks ago, Terry Herndon said the nea would fight the master-teacher concept in Tennessee and anywhere else it is tried. Are you suggesting a change in nea policy?
A[We] are not opposed [to these concepts] so much on philosophical grounds as on very pragmatic grounds. ... There is nothing new about merit pay. Our affiliates have been involved in numerous merit-pay plans over the last 20 years. And in every instance they have failed. The school districts have abandoned them because they produce low morale and because they are a pain in the neck to administer and for whatever other reasons. But usually it falls down because of the fact that some principal or some administrator evaluates classroom performance, not on the basis of what the children are learning or the educational environment, but on the basis of who has the tidiest rooms and who has the least noise.
QYou're suggesting that Terry Herndon was not representing the current policy of the nea when he said the organization would attempt to defeat master-teacher plans anywhere?
AWe are not going to attempt to defeat master-teacher plans. There are many master-teacher plans that our folks would probably like. But we are going to work to defeat the master-teacher plan in Tennessee as long as the Tennessee Education Association [the nea's Tennessee affiliate] is not satisfied with it. ... It was not consulted beforehand about this plan. [The plan] was unilaterally imposed by the Governor. Our folks in Tennessee have a vested interest in education, teachers, and teaching. They weren't consulted. There were things in that plan that our organization in Tennessee disagreed with, but they never had a chance to talk with anybody about it before it was popped out of the chute. Our association in Tennessee fought it because they were concerned about some of those issues, and as a result of that political confrontation the thing got postponed for a year.
If our state affiliate in Tennessee is upset about that proposition because they were never involved in it and have some problems with it and asks for help from their parent association, we will send it. ... Governor Alexander didn't even inform the teachers' association of this thing until an hour or two before he popped it on the legislature. He's either looking for a fight and really isn't interested in the involvement of the teachers through the association, or he is playing political games and wants the publicity more than he wants the results. As long as Governor Alexander or anyone else tries to unilaterally impose some scheme of merit pay and master teacher or whatever without the involvement of our association, and if our association has problems with that plan and they ask for help, we are going to respond.
QSo, the nea now is not opposed, in principle, to an incentive plan whereby the best teachers are given extra money to take on more responsibility?
AThat's right. The only caveat is that the teachers be involved in the planning of such a proposal.
QPresident Reagan has agreed to meet with you to discuss the merit-pay and master-teacher concepts. Will you express to him, as you have to me, your willingness to experiment with these ideas?
AWe are going to say [to the President] what I just said to you.
QWhat do you think the President's purpose is in focusing criticism in recent weeks on the nea?
AI think he is trying to divert public attention from his abandonment of his own commission on excellence report. He has taken the one issue in the report that he agrees with philosophically, and that he knows the nea has some problems with--i.e., merit pay--and he's attempting to turn public opinion against the nea and make a political issue out of it, rather than deal with the fact that he's rejected virtually everything else that's in the report and has tacked onto the report his own favorite elements of prayer in school, tuition tax credits, etc.
QIsn't it a difficult situation that you are getting yourselves into? On one hand, you are now saying that you endorse the principles of merit-pay and master-teacher concepts. But you are objecting to proposals that contain such concepts in a political climate that is favoring them.
AIt is a difficult position and a position that we have been in for decades. ... The nea is determined to keep an open mind; to take a look at all of the recommendations of these various reports; to not give knee-jerk reactions. ...
QWhat would you do if Albert Shanker endorsed the master-teacher plan in Tennessee?
AI think he just might do it. Since he's part of the whole neo-conservative movement in the country anyway, the closer he can get to the Reagan Administration, the closer he can get to Lamar Alexander and separate himself from the nea, ... the more political hay he can reap.
QWhat should be the role of teachers' unions in the effort to make master-teacher and merit-pay plans work, since you don't oppose them in theory?
AWe could do a better job of insisting that school districts evaluate all of their teachers; we should probably do a better job of insisting that the colleges and universities only graduate competent, qualified people; we should do a better job of blowing the whistle on low state-certification standards. We've tended to not be critical of the public schools as an institution and as a result we have borne the brunt of much of the criticism. We are going to have to speak out a little more vociferously about many of the things that we are deeply concerned about in education, and teacher evaluation is one of them.
QOn the question of evaluations, the American Federation of Teachers' affiliate in Dade County, Fla., [the fourth-largest school system in the nation] recently accepted, through the collective-bargaining process, a comprehensive teacher-evaluation procedure designed to give teachers some feedback on their work, but also to make it easier for the school system to dismiss teachers who prove to be incompetent. Why doesn't the nea, through its affiliates, make moves in the same direction?
AI think we are going to have to become more aggressive in insisting that evaluation procedures, feedback procedures, are instituted in school systems across the country; we've always taken the position that that is the responsibility of the school administration. But, obviously, if it is a problem, we are going to have to get involved in it.