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Pioneering State Teacher-Incentive Plans In Florida, Tennessee Still Under Attack

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Politically divisive from the outset, two of the nation's first state incentive programs for teachers are under renewed attack.

In Florida, the state merit-pay plan for teachers may be repealed in coming months due to the mounting criticism.

Tennessee's career-ladder program, which has already undergone substantial revisions, may be modified still more in light of proposed legislation to abolish it.

And in Alabama, a career-ladder plan is having difficulty getting off the ground because teachers and nonteachers cannot agree on specifics.

The continued turbulence surrounding the three programs may signal problems for other career-ladder and merit-pay schemes, state policymakers said last week, as they tried to figure out why their own plans have run into trouble.

One of the main sources of dispute in all three states is whether teachers have been involved too little or too much in designing the plans.

Some 15 states now fund a statewide or pilot program that rewards teachers and administrators based on performance, said Lynn M. Cornett, director of the Career-Ladder Clearinghouse at the Southern Regional Education Board. Another 13 have established mechanisms for developing such programs.

Failed Objectives

In Florida, members of the Senate education committee and a related appropriations subcommittee last week approved a letter calling for the governor to institute a moratorium on the master-teacher program. A similar letter is being circulated by the chairman of the House education committee. Both letters urge that no new applicants be accepted for the program.

The letters are in response to a legislatively mandated report released recently that concluded the master-teacher program has not achieved its objective of encouraging the best teachers to remain in the classroom, said Michael J. O'Farrell, staff director for the Senate committee.

The report by mgt of America, an independent Tallahassee consulting firm, concluded that the program has failed to gain widespread acceptance among educators or policymakers. Consistent union opposition, a lack of communication with teachers regarding what the program is about, and a failure to reward all but a small segment of the teaching force have led to its unpopularity, the report said.

Mr. O'Farrell and the House education committee's chairman, Thomas L. Hazouri, predicted lawmakers would scrap the existing program in favor of one more closely modeled on a career ladder that would be developed carefully over the next few years.

"Most of the problems with the program took place because the department of education did not have adequate time to fully implement it," said Edward R. Allen, director of information services for mgt of America. "Everything that was done had to be rushed."

In addition, he said, not enough teachers were involved in the planning.

Unlike a career-ladder plan, which can reward an unlimited number of teachers on the basis of attainment, Florida's master-teacher program requires individuals to compete for a fixed amount of money. Master teachers do not have to provide additional service to the school system beyond their current duties--a feature common to many career-ladder systems.

Staff members for Commissioner of Education Ralph D. Turlington and Gov. Bob Graham said last week that it was too early to comment on the mgt report, which is 196 pages in length. Last year, the legislature required that the Governor submit a proposal by Feb. 1, 1986, on how to solve the program's implementation problems.

In Tennessee, Senator James M. Lewis Jr. has announced that he 4p8will introduce legislation this month to repeal the state's career-ladder plan because it is failing to reward the best teachers.

"It is not working," he said. "Tennessee teachers seem to be as demoralized as I've ever seen them about public education. I feel like several of our more experienced teachers are ready to take early retirement and leave if we don't do something."

At the same time, the Tennessee Education Association, which represents 90 percent of the state's teachers, has voted to create a committee to study ways to modify the highest rungs of the career ladder.

"There are serious problems with levels two and three," said the tea president, Thomas P. Cannon, "and unless they are corrected, repeal would certainly be an option."

"A part of the problem," said Senator Lewis, "is that the Governor and the people that he relied on for information sat in their ivory towers and decided what should be done to improve public education in Tennessee. As usual, they didn't listen to the people who are in the front lines." The Governor has denied such allegations in the past.

According to Mr. Cannon, the performance evaluations that teachers are required to undergo to enter the top rungs of the career ladder have been inconsistent and are far too costly.

"At this time, there is $3.8 million going to career-level two and three teachers for merit pay," he said. "At the same time, according to the commissioner of education, $5.1 million was spent last year paying state evaluators and covering their expenses."

"You can imagine, that when teachers see it costs $5.1 million of taxpayers' dollars to give them $3.8 million, they say there's something wrong with the bureaucracy."

Improvement Needed

John M. Parish, press secretary for Gov. Lamar Alexander, said last week that "the Governor feels confident that the career-ladder program is here to stay."

"Like any new program, it probably will require some fine-tuning and adjustments," he continued, "but we don't expect any significant changes in it, or certainly any changes that would diminish the high standards that have been set for the upper levels of the career ladder."

Nelson C. Andrews, chairman of the state board of education, said he agreed that the program must be improved. But he would not favor repealing it, he said, adding that he thought such action was unlikely.

'Virtually Deadlocked'

Meanwhile, members of the Alabama committee working to develop the appraisal system for that state's career-ladder program are "virtually deadlocked" on a number of key issues, according to Allen Cleveland, assistant director of the division of professional services in the state department of education.

The 35-member committee has become polarized between those who teach and those who do not, according to observers.

Eighteen of the committee's members are classroom teachers--15 of whom were selected by the Alabama Education Association--while others include businessmen, citizens, school-board members, and administrators.

Teachers on the committee are pushing for an objective evaluation of their performance based on classroom observations, while other committee members would allow more qualitative elements to be brought into the review process, said Paul R. Hubbert, executive secretary and treasurer for the aea

In addition, teachers want decisions based almost entirely on their performance in the classroom. Other committee members think that additional factors, such as lesson plans, portfolios, and a teacher's responsibilities during the rest of the school day and year should be taken into consideration.

The law requires that the program be implemented in the fall of 1986, which means that the committee's work should be completed by March, observers said. The next scheduled meeting of the full committee is in late January.

Last month, committee members appointed a subcommittee of six to break the deadlock between the two factions. They are working with consultants to resolve key issues.

According to Ms. Cornett of the Southern Regional Education Board, the situation in Alabama is unique because the legislature spelled out in the bill authorizing the career ladder that the union would have substantial involvement on the planning committee.

Mr. Hubbert admitted that with a majority of the votes, teachers could push their agenda through the committee, but said they were reluctant to do so because it would "politicize" the program. But ultimately, he added, "teachers are not going to hand over power to the administrators."

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