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Mich. Teachers Oppose Merit Pay, Urge Reform

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Detroit--Michigan's public-school teachers are twice as likely as the general public in the state to send their children to private schools, according to a newspaper survey.

In a Detroit Free Press survey of teachers, 20 percent of those polled who have school-age children said they do not send them to public schools. By contrast, only 10 percent of Michigan students overall are enrolled in private schools this year, according to the state figures.

The Free Press polled 872 teachers in 35 districts across the state. The poll, one of the first detailed looks at the opinions of teachers following the recent resurgence of national interest in education, is believed to be accurate to within 3.5 percentage points about the feelings of the state's 75,000 public-school educators.

Among significant findings of the poll:

Michigan teachers oppose the concept of merit pay by a 3-to-2 margin.

More than half the state's teachers have been threatened with violence while at work and nearly one in four has been attacked by students, parents, or intruders.

Most teachers like their jobs, but fewer than one in six would recommend teaching as a career.

Nearly all teachers endorse tougher graduation standards,increased course requirements, and more homework. They generally agree with recommendations made by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Teachers in the state's largest district--Detroit--were the most critical of public schools, but teachers across Michigan said the schools are hurt by uncaring parents, undisciplined students, unqualified school-board members, and, to a lesser extent, unmotivated educators.

Widespread Concern and Anger

The poll reflected teachers' widespread concern and anger over public education in Michigan, the state perhaps hit hardest by several years of recession and taxpayer revolts.

One teacher from the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Melvindale said she sends her children to private school because she is "tired of the people in my city dictating the type of education my children will have by defeating tax renewal. I won't stand for it."

Nor will the teachers stand for merit pay. Although a recent nationwide sampling by the American School Board Journal found most teachers favoring the concept of merit pay, 61 percent of Michigan's teachers rejected it when they were asked if they agreed with the excellence commission's proposal designed to encourage talented people to enter the teaching profession. Under that proposal, superior teachers--"master teachers"--would be paid more than their colleagues.

"To think that merit pay would come close to solving any of the problems in education today is to think that a Band-Aid will cure heart disease," wrote a vocational-education teacher from the Detroit suburb of Taylor.

Teachers Should Help Decide

Of the 39 percent supporting merit pay, more than four-fifths said teachers should help decide who gets it. Seventy percent said principals should play a role; 59 percent favored independent judges; 39 percent said students; and 15 percent said school-board members.

Teachers were more supportive of other proposals by the excellence commission. Nine out of 10 said they favored tougher standards for student promotion and graduation. Along with that, 84 percent called for minimum-competency examinations as a requirement for high-school graduation. Michigan now has no such requirement.

'Close the Loopholes'

"Kids graduate from my school system without the ability to read and write," said a Pontiac middle-school teacher. "Somehow, no one catches them along the way. Close the loopholes. That would be a major improvement."

In addition, they agreed with other proposals in the commission's "Nation at Risk" report:

Some 83 percent endorsed requiring high-school students to take four years of English; three years of mathematics, science, and social studies; and one-half year of computer studies.

Six of 10 polled teachers said students should be assigned more homework, but most of the surveyed teachers--including half the high-school teachers--said they do not assign more than two hours of homework a week to their students.

"I'd like to make students work harder," said a teacher from rural Imlay City. "But more homework won't do the trick. I would assign work every night if students would do it. But they've got TV and video games and booze to tend to, and their parents don't think schoolwork is important."

Six of 10 agreed that colleges and universities should enact more stringent graduation standards.

Nine of 10 said teacher pay should be increased to become more competitive with salaries in other fields. Michigan ranked fourth among the 50 states in average level of teachers' salaries in 1981-82, with the average classroom instructor earning $24,322.

Two proposals by the excellence commission that teachers said would not improve education are longer school days and years. Only 25 percent agreed that the school year should be increased from its current 180 days to between 200 and 220 days.

And just 30 percent agreed that school days should be extended to seven hours of instruction.

Violence a Problem

The poll found violence to be a significant problem for Michigan teachers.

Forty-six percent of those polled said they have been threatened with violence by students. Twenty-three percent said they have been threatened by parents, and 13 percent said they have been threatened by intruders in the school.

The percentages were significantly higher among Detroit teachers and middle- or junior-high-school teachers and lower among elementary-school teachers.

Of the teachers surveyed, 19 percent said they have been hit by students, 3 percent said they have been hit by parents, and 3 percent said they have been hit by school intruders.

Again, acts of violence were highest among Detroit teachers.

"We've got a terrible problem with classroom violence," said John Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. "The plain fact is that kids can get away with murder in our schools."

Some teachers have hit back. Twenty-one percent of those polled said they have struck students in anger, and 11 percent said they have struck in self defense.

"I hate to admit it, but I've slapped my share of students," said an elementary-school teacher from the Muskegon Reeths-Puffer district. "I'm a good teacher, and affectionate, but sometimes they take you past the point of tolerance."

Despite the violence, nine of 10 teachers said they feel safe in school. Three percent said they have carried weapons to class (usually aerosol chemicals or knives), although that figure was much higher for Detroit teachers and teachers with less than 10 years' experience.

Rage and Frustration

Although the teachers frequently wrote of rage and frustration in comments they appended to their survey answers, they also said they like their jobs. More than nine of 10 said their job is at least moderately satisfying. Particularly happy are elementary-school teachers, less-experienced teachers, and teachers from outside the Detroit metropolitan area.

Half the teachers said they would again select teaching as their profession, while one fourth were unsure and one fourth said they would pick a different career.

Only 16 percent would recommend their careers to current college students.

Particularly Critical Perspective

The survey found that teachers in the 2,000-student Detroit district had a particularly critical perspective. While 62 percent of the teachers from outside the city said graduates from their districts are "well" or "extremely well" prepared for college, only 14 percent of Detroit's teachers said that about their students.

And while 32 percent of the suburban and rural teachers said graduates are well prepared for today's job market, less than 8 percent of the Detroit teachers shared that sentiment.

Indeed, 55 percent of Detroit teachers surveyed said their graduates are "poorly" prepared for the job market, while 25 percent of the other teachers polled said that is true in their districts.

"It is nearly impossible for most students in our schools to get a decent education," wrote one Detroit middle-school mathematics teacher. "Kids are unruly, parents don't care, school administrators are caught up in the power games, and teachers burn out. It's a damn shame, but there's not much here you can't be critical of."

District Run Inefficiently

Ninety percent of the Detroit teachers said their district, the state's largest, is run inefficiently. By contrast, just half the suburban teachers polled said their district is inefficiently run, and just one-quarter of those polled outstate said so.

Throughout Michigan, however, teachers shared one sentiment: Cut administration.

"With all the financial problems my district is going through, we never see the top dogs getting laid off--just teachers," said a 4th-grade teacher from Saginaw.

While Detroit teachers tended to be most critical, educators around the state agreed that public schools face serious problems. Fewer than one in four said the quality of education has improved in the last five years. Nearly half said it declined.

They cited many reasons for the decline, including:

Money. Nine of 10 teachers polled said lack of money was a "serious" or "very serious" problem in their district.

"Our money problems have led to other problems," said a gym teacher from prosperous Bloomfield Hills. "Large class sizes, shortened school days, elimination of extra-curricular activities, and many more shortcomings can directly be tied to lack of financial resources."

Student discipline. Two of three teachers surveyed said "unmotivated, undisciplined" students were a major problem. They talked of competition from sports, television, drugs, and alcohol. And they blamed principals and school boards for not helping them enforce discipline.

Parents. Two of three surveyed teachers called lack of parental involvement a serious problem.

"Years ago, if a student was disrespectful and did not complete assignments, he or she got it worse at home. Now, if a child is disciplined at school, the parent calls up and blames the teacher," said a junior-high art teacher who did not write the name of her district on the survey.

Red tape. Fifty-six percent of the teachers polled said red tape and paperwork are major problems. "I want to teach, but 30 percent of my time is consumed with paperwork," said a history teacher from the Detroit suburb of Berkley. "Just let me get these damn forms--most of which must be done in triplicate--off of my desk and I will be an effective teacher."

Amid the anger, there appears to be definite concern about the quality of instruction in the public schools. Most of those surveyed expressed their worry that not enough time and money are spent on subjects such as reading, writing, science, computer studies, and foreign languages.

And many felt too much time and money are spent on interscholastic sports and extra-curricular activities.

Other Conclusions

Other findings:

Slightly more than half the teachers said their own college courses trained them well for their careers.

Six of 10 teachers polled favor the testing of teachers starting in the field.

The teachers opposed--60 percent to 40 percent--having to take periodic competency tests in order to continue teaching.

They were even more opposed to a proposal to pay higher salaries to mathematics and science teachers in order to alleviate shortages in those fields. Just two out of 10 supported the idea.

Six of 10 teachers polled favored increased federal aid to education.

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