Merit-Pay Issue Dominates School-Reform Debate
Eight weeks ago, heavy lobbying by the teachers' union in the state persuaded a committee of the Tennessee Senate to defer consideration of Gov. Lamar Alexander's sweeping measure designed to restructure the state's method of compensating teachers—creating a "master-teacher" system that would pay teachers based on merit rather than on a single salary schedule.
But a dramatic move by President Reagan to "seize the educational initiative" has made the teacher-pay issue a central one in a nationwide partisan political debate and has prompted the two leading national teachers' unions to move swiftly to modify their longstanding opposition to the concept of linking teacher pay to performance.
"Merit pay is a motherhood issue," a White House aide told the Baltimore Sun last week. "It's a winner."
Each of three recently released national reports on schooling—including the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education—has endorsed the concept and has contributed to its status as a major political and professional issue. Bills in legislative conference committees in California and Florida would create similar state-funded master-teacher programs, offering each state's top teachers increased salaries and status in return for taking on additional school-system responsibilities. Governor Alexander said the governors of 10 other states—including Utah, Virginia, Kansas, and North Carolina—have expressed interest in replicating the Tennessee plan.
And last week, in a radical reversal of longstanding opposition to merit-pay plans, Robert E. Harman, director of communications for the National Education Association (NEA), told Education Week: "Though we are not flat out endorsing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan, we look on it with favor, especially in comparison to the Tennessee plan." Mr. Harman was referring to the most far-reaching plan now under consideration to restructure the way teachers are promoted and compensated. (See story on this page.)
The AFT has invited Governor Alexander to address its annual convention in Los Angeles next month. Albert Shanker, the AFT's president, said, "We want our own people to engage in a year of open-minded thinking about the new [merit-pay] proposals that are out there. And we want to show the governors of this country that we are willing to talk about these proposals." Mr. Shanker was among several educators who agreed with President Reagan during lunch at the White House last Wednesday to "explore different methods of compensation for teachers." (See story on page 1.)
Implementation of Plan
Leaders of both unions also said they may, under certain conditions, support the implementation of the Tennessee plan. The Tennessee master-teacher plan will not be reconsidered by the state's legislature until next year.
The concept of merit pay is not new in American education. Nor does it mean the same thing to everybody. Merit pay most often consists of a monetary stipend earned by teachers, who, on the basis of some form of evaluation, are considered to be doing superior work. It can be based on a teacher's classroom performance or on the outcome of a teacher's efforts (students' achievement-test scores, for example). And it is usually added to a teacher's regular salary in the form of a bonus.
Those who advocate linking pay to performance contend that it encourages good teachers to do their best work and offers average teachers an incentive to improve their teaching. They also argue that such a system, in rewarding excellence, encourages the bright and ambitious to enter teaching and remain in the profession.
Paying all teachers with the same academic credentials and years of experience the same salary—the practice now followed by virtually every school system in the country—offers none of these incentives, merit-pay supporters say. (Most also agree that teachers' basic salaries are too low to attract the brightest college students into the profession.)
Most experts distinguish the concept of merit pay from the concept of the master teacher. While so-called master teachers, like teachers who receive merit pay, are usually given pay raises based on a favorable evaluation of their teaching abilities, the master-teacher concept generally involves different kinds of incentives and addresses additional, and probably more serious, problems in the reward structure of the teaching profession.
Under a master-teacher plan, such as those under consideration in Tennessee and in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system (see story on page 1), teachers take on additional responsibilities, such as curriculum development, in return for considerable pay increases. In effect, they receive promotions while those who get merit pay receive raises.
Proponents of the master-teacher concept say it offers teachers a "career ladder," an opportunity to take on new roles and responsibilities in a profession where the work often repeats itself from year to year. And because master teachers are usually asked to work with their less-experienced peers, master-teacher plans, observers seem to agree, offer the possibility for increased collegiality in a work environment now characterized in most school systems by virtual isolation in one's classroom.
"People are leaving the profession because they have no opportunity for professional development," said Susan J. Rosenholtz, an assistant professor of education and sociology at Vanderbilt University who is developing standards for master teachers under the Tennessee plan. "Pecuniary rewards alone will not change the nature of teaching, and it is simple-minded to think they will."
"If we are going to attract those who wouldn't normally enter teaching and keep them in it, then we've got to give them status, career options and control over these options, pride, and an opportunity to show off a bit," said Philip C. Schlechty, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is directing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg master-teacher project. "Teachers do not get any of this now."
Officials in Tennessee, where Governor Alexander's master-teacher proposal would create four teaching levels, each with different responsibilities, status, and salary, are quick to say their plan is not a merit-pay plan, though it is consistent with the merit-pay concept.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Tennessee proposals are unprecedented in the extent to which they would redefine a teaching career, although they have antecedents in the so-called "differential-staffing" experiments that have been tried over the years, especially during the late 1950's and 1960's.
The Houston Independent School District has yet another type of pay plan for teachers, which many call "incentive pay." Unlike merit-pay and master-teacher concepts, incentive-pay plans usually do not involve an evaluation of a teacher's work. Rather, they often use incentive payments to meet school-system goals or to attract teachers in disciplines where demand exceeds supply. The Houston school system, for example, pays annual bonuses of $2,000 to mathematics, science, and bilingual and special-education teachers and to teachers who agree to work in inner-city schools.
According to the research on the subject, merit-pay provisions for teachers were the norm prior to the early 1920's, when, in an effort to end the disparity in salaries between elementary- and secondary-school teachers, school systems began to adopt "single salary schedules," which rewarded equally all teachers with the same experience and level of training.
The interest of school systems and states in merit pay seems to have ebbed and flowed over the years. The idea has been tried in schools from West Hartford, Conn., to Kansas City, Mo., and Kalamazoo, Mich. In the late 1940's and 1950's, at least two states—New York and Delaware—passed merit-pay laws for teachers. But the use of the concept in recent decades has been limited.
Only 6.3 percent of all school systems in communities with populations of 30,000 or more allowed higher salaries for superior service in 1956-57, and many of them did not actually offer such salaries, according to an NEA report. In 1968-69, the NEA reports, 11.3 percent of the school systems with enrollments of 6,000 or more students had some form of merit-pay provisions; by 1972-73, the figure had dropped to 5.5 percent.
Today, the use of merit pay for teachers continues to be very limited. An October, 1982, survey by the Southern Regional Education Board found that no states have policies regarding extra compensation for teachers who are recognized for outstanding performance, while only three states have policies on simply recognizing good teaching.
A 1979 survey by the Educational Research Service (ERS), a research organization supported by a number of school-administrator groups, found that 4 percent of the school systems in the nation had a merit-pay or incentive plan for teachers in 1977-78.
Merit-pay systems do not appear to be widely used in other professions either. Keon S. Chi, a researcher for the Council of State Governments who is doing a survey of state public-sector (excluding teachers) merit-pay plans, said several states have adopted such plans in the past six years; he estimated that about 35 of them now have some form of merit-salary system for some public employees. Others familiar with such plans said they have been modestly successful, at best.
Stanley E. Seashore of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan said that many merit-pay plans have been tried in private industry and business over the years, but that "it would be a mistake to think merit systems prevail in the private sector."
He also said, as did other experts, that merit-pay comparisons between the teaching profession and the private sector may not be appropriate because it is far easier to measure "merit" in the private sector where productivity and profits are the usual goals.
Very few merit-pay plans in public schools, research shows, have lasted for more than a few years, for several reasons.
The 1979 ERS survey found that most plans failed because either they were cumbersome to administer, costly, failed to achieve a consensus on the definition of what meritorious teaching actually was, or, most frequently, they created disharmony among teachers who complained that the evaluation procedures were unfair or that they were not consulted in the development of the plans.
David B. Lipsky, a professor in the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, came to the same conclusions After spending last year studying 30 unsuccessful merit-pay plans in school systems in different areas of the country.
The planning committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg master-teacher plan went so far as to say in a report: "There is more evidence to support the assertion that merit pay has had more harmful and disruptive effects [on teachers' performance] than it has had positive effects."
And a "Research Action Brief" written in 1981 by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management in cooperation with the National School Boards Association said, "The theory behind merit pay—that money is the way to motivate teachers to improve—is simply not supported by the research." Several researchers, however, believe that monetary and other incentives, in theory, can induce teachers to do their best work or to enter and remain in the profession, though they acknowledge that the concept has not been successfully used in education to date.
"The evidence shows that people respond to monetary and other forms of incentives," said Robert L. Kahn, professor of psychology and medical care at the University of Michigan. "But any incentive of less than 10 percent of a person's salary probably won't be effective."
Endorsement of Teachers
Most observers agree that to be successful, alternatives to the single-salary schedule that compensates teachers on the basis of their "merit" must also have the endorsement of teachers. Governor Alexander informed the teachers' unions in Tennessee of his master-teacher plan only hours before he announced it publicly; teachers have played an active role in the planning of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system.
But the key to any method of linking pay to performance, most agree, is an even-handed evaluation system based on an objective set of standards. The failure of past merit-pay plans to accomplish either of these, many say, illustrates the serious failure of school systems to ensure that teaching standards are being maintained in their schools, that teachers are being helped to improve their work, and that incompetent people are removed from classrooms.
Says Thomas L. Good, a professor of education at the University of Missouri and an expert on the teaching profession: "The quality of school-system evaluations of teachers is very low by any criteria. ... Those who are doing the observation—usually school principals—are poorly prepared for the task; most of them have been trained as institutional managers, not as curriculum leaders. ... And the evaluation forms they use are superficial. They ask about the neatness of the teacher, grooming, pleasantness of the voice, the level of animation, the amount of movement in the classroom—they look at teaching as though the teacher is an actor or an actress. How can teachers improve their teaching under such a system?"
'Heart of Problem'
"The heart of the problem is that there is little agreement over what the art of teaching is," said Dan C. Lortie, professor of education at the University of Chicago and author of Schoolteacher.
Mr. Shanker offers another perspective on past merit-pay evaluations: "Historically, people who received merit pay were those who got the paperwork in on time, people who didn't rock the boat, maybe people who were anti-union, faculty spies. And because it was usually given to only a few people, most teachers viewed it as just a public-relations stunt."
The Tennessee and Charlotte-Mecklenburg master-teacher plans attempt to address these problems.
Both, borrowing from the widely accepted, longstanding method of faculty evaluation in higher education, would involve teachers in the evaluation of their colleagues. Both also have borrowed the university's four-level promotion system.
To avoid favoritism, the Tennessee plan would not allow teachers from the same school system to evaluate each other. Both teachers' unions have praised this part of the plan.
Although the Tennessee proposal will not be reconsidered for a year, the state's education department is developing a plan for evaluating master teachers based on the body of research on effective teaching that has been built up over the past 10 years. Ms. Rosenholtz of Vanderbilt said the evaluation will cover four areas: planning, classroom management, "instructional behavior" (including knowledge of subject matter), and "one school-level category," which will involve a teacher's participation in school activites.
Tennessee is also developing a "master-principal" program designed to promote curriculum leadership among the state's school administrators. A similar program is being developed in Atlanta under the direction of the Council for Basic Education.
Other reforms in the evaluation of teachers are being tried in Toledo, Ohio, and Dade County (Miami), Fla.
There are few school systems in the country that currently link pay to teacher performance.
The Los Angeles system gave $1,000 in merit pay to 200 of its top teachers this year. It called them "master teachers" and asked them to conduct training sessions for their colleagues. But the program will be dropped next year for budgetary reasons.
Houston's incentive plan, begun in 1979, is designed to reduce teacher absenteeism and fill positions in subjects and at particular schools where the district has shortages. Officials say it has accomplished these goals.
The district's teacher "turnover" rate (due to resignations, retirements, requests for transfers) has decreased from 23.9 percent in 1979 to 12 percent last January, while the number of vacancies in the four targeted subjects—mathematics, science, and bilingual and special education—has declined from 186 in 1979 to 30 in the fall of 1982. School-system officials estimate they will distribute $11 million in incentive stipends for the 1982-83 school year. Houston's three teachers' unions are vehemently opposed to the plan, however.
The Tennessee and Charlotte-Mecklenburg master-teacher proposals are unusual in their attempt to permanently restructure the career of teaching by allowing all teachers the opportunity to take on new roles and responsibilities while continuing to spend at least part of their time in the classroom. The weakness of the current organization of schools, many agree, is that the best teachers must leave the classroom and become administrators if they want to advance professionally.
There are some school systems, however, that have formalized the position of master teacher in a less comprehensive way. Teachers in Augusta, Ga., Lincoln, Neb., and Jefferson County, Colo., for example, are able to become 'Instructional Lead Teachers" or faculty members at a ''Staff Development Academy," where they work with other, less-experienced colleagues, and earn higher status and salaries by doing so.
But as the support for these ideas grows, experts warn, a range of difficult issues must be addressed if the failures of the past are to be avoided.
One is cost. Mr. Schlechty estimated that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system will have to increase its budget by 10 percent by the time its master-teacher plan is fully implemented about 15 years from now. And Ms. Rosenholtz said the Tennessee plan would be "very expensive" to administer.
However, 57 percent of the Tennesseans who responded to a recent poll by Peter Hart Research Associates said they would support higher taxes to support salary increases for teachers meeting higher standards; only 13 percent said they would support tax increases for an across-the-board pay raise for teachers in the state. Also, nearly 60 percent of those responding to a national Gallup Poll to be released this fall say that teachers should be paid on the basis of the quality of their work.
It is also unclear what level of incentives teachers consider adequate, according to Leonard B. Bickman, a professor of psychology at the George Peabody College for Teachers at Vanderbilt University who is also studying the research on incentives for teachers. "There's little research on the subject. It's a capitalist assumption that money will buy you anything. I just don't think it's true with teachers," he said.
Ms. Rosenholtz noted that under the Tennessee proposal, master teachers would earn as much as lower-level school administrators, to encourage them to remain in the classroom.
Ms. Lipskey of Cornell, whose study of merit pay over the past year has been funded by the NEA, raises another issue: "There has been no systematic research done to show that those under merit pay perform better than those who don't get it."
Another question: "How much time and energy are [school systems] willing to put into evaluation activity?" asks Mr. Good of the University of Missouri. "If one is going to observe teachers two or three times during an academic year, then it would be my position that discrimination could not be made among about the top 50 percent of the teachers who are teaching today.
"And though I think it is possible," he adds, "to make some level of differentiation among such teachers, given the financial commitments of school systems and how they define their task, I'm relatively pessimistic of this happening."