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Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as NEA Poised To Debate Pay For Performance

NEA Poised To Debate Pay For Performance

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The National Education Association plans to weigh in on the sensitive issue of performance-based pay next month, when delegates to its Representative Assembly are expected to vote on proposals that could open the door to union support for more experiments in the way teachers are paid.

As of yet, no measures have been finalized, but a report on the issue recently approved by the union's board of directors lists several conditions under which the union would accept alternative forms of teacher compensation.

Approving the report's recommendations would allow the NEA to give additional support— through workshops, publications, and other materials—to the small but growing number of affiliates exploring innovative pay schemes. But it also would signal a greater willingness on the part of the nation's largest teachers' union to consider pay plans that go beyond traditional salary schedules based almost exclusively on amount of experience and the level of education attained.

Julie E. Koppich

"Reading the report, if one knew nothing about that organization, a policy analyst would say it's the height of caution," said Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant who follows teachers' unions. "But the fact that this behemoth organization is simply talking about this is significant. For a very long time, there were topics that were taboo in NEA, and compensation was one of them."

'Merit Pay' Opposed

The measures promise to be among the most hotly debated items at this year's NEA convention, which will bring some 9,000 union members from across the country to Chicago. Delegates from some of the organization's largest state affiliates already have voiced opposition to the plan. But supporters say the changes are needed, given the growing interest in performance-based pay.

"We don't want folks to be floundering," union President Bob Chase said. "If they want to move in this direction, it's our responsibility as the national organization to provide them with the necessary help."

Any changes in NEA policy on teacher compensation would include major caveats. The union's recently approved report— prepared by its committee on professional standards and practice—says performance-based pay "should augment—and not supplant—the single-salary schedule."

Moreover, the document takes great pains to express continued opposition to "merit pay," which it defines as financial awards for individual teachers based "to any significant extent" on the "subjective evaluation" of administrators. Several such plans were adopted in the 1980s and drew complaints from teachers that they promoted favoritism.

Instead, the report calls for the NEA to support group-incentive programs such as those that reward all teachers in a building for achieving specific schoolwide goals. Also endorsed are financial incentives for attracting teachers to low-performing schools, although the report rejects differentiating pay by subject specialty as a way to address shortages. Making such distinctions, it argues, sends the message that some subjects are more important than others.

Bob Chase

In more tepid tones, the document recommends supporting experiments in which individual teachers are rewarded for acquiring certain measurable skills and for assuming additional duties. But it stipulates that any such program must include clear and objective criteria, and allow only a minimal role for evaluations by administrators.

Authors of the report say the recommendations partly reflect the increased sophistication of many new methods for evaluating teachers' performance. In particular, the advent of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—which recognizes outstanding educators who pass a lengthy assessment—has won the support of many union leaders who see it as an evaluation that is both fair and rigorous.

The NEA already endorses local agreements giving bonuses to board certified teachers, and a handful of its affiliates, including those in Denver and Columbus, Ohio, have embraced other forms of performance-based pay.

"Until the last few years, we looked at pay as either merit pay or as the single-salary schedule," said Tim Dedman, the Lexington, Ky., elementary school teacher who chaired the panel that drafted the report. "And what we've found is that there are a host of other things between those."

Student Test Scores

Debate on the issue will begin even before the convention kicks off July 3. The NEA's 180-member resolutions committee must first decide how many, if any, of the recommendations in the professional-standards committee's report should be put before the full assembly, where they'd need a simple majority to be enacted.

A central question will be what role student test scores should play in performance-pay schemes. While approving the overall report by a vote of 98-58 last month, the NEA board of directors objected to the document's suggestion that test results, in conjunction with other criteria, could play a part. As a result, the board sent the resolutions committee a recommendation that it oppose any use of student test scores.

The opposition to special bonuses for teachers in shortage areas also could generate considerable discussion. The report's authors argue that such differentials are merely "quick fixes," and that the real solution is to make all teachers' salaries more competitive. But many NEA locals have accepted the use of bonuses for such high-demand areas as bilingual and special education.

"If we are to continue to oppose putting unqualified teachers in the classroom, I don't see how we can then refuse to even look at something like market-based pay," said Gene Neely, the president of the Kansas- NEA.

Bedeviling Details

Others plan to oppose any resolutions on the issue, even though the measures would not bind affiliates. All members of the NEA board of directors from California—which sends the most delegates to the convention—voted against the professional-practices committee's report.

A major concern is that—no matter how qualified its support—if the 2.5 million- member NEA gives the green light for any new forms of performance-based pay, policymakers will use it as ammunition in their efforts to push for changes in places where the state and local unions still oppose them.

"I've sat at the bargaining table," said David Lebow, an NEA board member from California, "and every time a group takes a stand like this, no matter what the caveats are from the national organization, the other side says, 'See, the NEA believes in performance-based pay, why don't you?'"

But others argue that the time is right for the union to revisit the issue. If teachers are to make the case that they deserve higher pay, say many supporters of the changes, they also may have to be more willing to show their worth in new ways, says Jolene Franken, the Iowa State Education Association president. "But it's more important that we be involved, rather than just stand aside and wring our hands and see what the result is."

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Page 5

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