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Merit-Pay Schemes Rejected as 'Panaceas' for Schools' Woes

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Based on the poor track record of merit-pay and career-ladder plans, authors of a report released this week have concluded that such plans are ineffective and simplistic approaches to the complex problems of public education.

The report, prepared by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development for its 63,000 members, cautions educators against looking at merit pay as a "panacea" to the problems of public education.

"To propose a system that has established such an abysmal record of failure, a proponent must be totally ignorant of its past, hopelessly optimistic about its future, or innovative enough in the present to avoid the pratfalls of previous programs," write the authors of the report, "Incentives for Excellence in America's Schools."

The report was produced by a task force that included representatives from higher education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the ascd

Merit-pay programs may work well as part of a solution, the report states, but must be placed in the broader context of "human-resource development."

"Comprehensive changes that promote effective management of schools and professional growth of teachers will prove more likely to positively influence teaching performance than any merit-pay programs that might succeed," the report states.

According to Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the ascd, the report is "in keeping" with several current studies of successful corporations in the private sector.

"The compelling reason such firms are highly productive and responsive to their clientele is not extra or merit pay for a select few employees," Mr. Cawelti said, "but the development of a total organizational ethos or climate wherein everyone is made to feel important and contributing to the organization's success."

Merit-Pay Problems

In examining the history of differential-pay and differentiated-staffing plans in the United States, the report reveals a troubled past.

"Since its inception in 1908, the [concepts have] seen a boom-and-bust cycle of popularity," the report states. Between 1938 and 1958, at least 170 school districts tried to implement merit-pay plans and by 1968, 11 percent of all school districts with 6,000 or more students indicated that they had merit pay.

But many school districts that tried variable-compensation programs subsequently abandoned them, according to the report.

The ascd research indicates that problems with the programs included administrative difficulties, such as the need for a highly dependable, objective, and cost-effective evaluation system--a system that "has thus far proved elusive," the report states. (See Education Week, March 21, 1984.)

The programs also encountered "political" problems, the authors write. The substantial funding needed to support the programs tended to ebb and flow with political fortunes and the teachers' unions--after battling for the uniform salary schedule used in most schools today--opposed such proposals.


The decision to implement a pay-incentive program must be an "informed choice," authors of the report conclude, suggesting that career-ladder and merit-pay programs only be considered as part of a broader program in "human-resources development."

"If problems that now impede teachers' growth as full professional partners remain uncorrected, any one element--including pay incentives--employed to create a higher plateau of teaching excellence is seed sown on barren ground," the report states.

Solving the problems, according to the report, would require schools to:

Establish an organizational identity and sense of commitment.

Build a personnel-evaluation system that emphasizes accomplishment, establishes high but reasonable expectations, and positively reinforces productive people.

Involve people at all levels of the organization in decisionmaking, planning, and evaluation.

The report also recommends the development of:

Targeted training programs to assist principals and teachers in implementing new programs, techniques, and materials.

General inservice-development opportunities that allow teachers to explore and expand knowledge of their subject fields, of the development of children and youth, and of the past and present practices of education.

Programs that provide freedom to be away from the school and classroom for training opportunities.

Development centers in which personnel can devise their own teaching materials and methods.

Schedules that permit collaborative contact among teachers to counter the isolation that interferes with their teaching, reinforcing, and learning from one another.

Copies of the ascd report are available for $2.50 prepaid; for orders of 10 or more, the report is $1 each. Write to ascd, 225 North Washington St., Alexandria, Va. 22314.

Other Merit-Pay Reports

The Education Commission of the States also has addressed the issue of merit pay in a series of nine booklets on teaching released early last month.

In a booklet called "Improving Teacher Quality Through Incentives," authors Robert Palaich and Ellen Flannelly encourage school systems not to rush into a merit-pay program without careful consideration.

"A compensation system must be designed to meet a school district's goals, not adopted simply because a particular system is popular somewhere else," they write.

A school system's first step, the report states, must be clarification of its goals and identification of its particular problems. The choice thenel5lbecomes "whether to focus resources on immediate measures to upgrade the existing workforce or long-term measures to attract better people into teaching," the authors suggest.

Booklets in the Series

Another booklet in the series, "The Costs of Performance Pay Systems" by C. Kent McGuire and John A. Thompson, outlines the financial requirements of various merit-pay plans. Costs vary from plan to plan, depending on start-up costs, the amount of the awards, and the evaluation system used, the authors note.

Other booklets in the series are: "A Policy Guide to Teacher Reward Systems," "Evaluating Teacher Performance," "Political Myths About Reforming Teaching," "How States Can Improve Teacher Quality," "The Legal Context for Teacher Improvement," "Evaluating Teacher Incentive Systems," and "School Organization and the Rewards of Teaching."

Copies of the ecs reports are available for $6 each or $36 for the complete set. Write to the ecs Distribution Center, Denver, Colo. 80295, or call (303) 830-3692.

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