A Call for ‘Real Incentives’

September 01, 1989 2 min read


In a July speech, the union leader challenged President Bush to earn the title “Education President,” and suggested he could do so by launching a national school-improvement effort that pays teachers for results.

Speaking at the union’s professional issues conference in Washington, D.C., Shanker urged the President to take the $500 million he has proposed spending on a program that would identify and reward “merit schools’’ and invest it instead on one that offers teachers “real incentives.”

Bush’s proposal “talks about incentives and rewards, but it is only talk,” Shanker asserts. “The rewards are so small and the odds of winning so long that the program won’t interest many people, let alone promote change.’'

The labor leader urged the President to establish a voluntary five-year competition, the winners of which would be the teachers in those schools that showed the greatest improvement. If the federal government were to invest the money Bush is proposing for his merit-schools plan instead of paying out annual awards, Shanker reckons there would be enough saved up after five years to pay $15,000 bonuses to every faculty member in the 10 percent of the nation’s schools that showed the most improvement.

“That’s real money—and since one in 10 would win, that’s a real incentive,” Shanker wrote subsequently in his regularly published column.

“It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy,” Shanker wrote. “If the Soviet Union can begin to accept the importance of incentives to productivity, it is time for people in public education to do the same.”

The Administration immediately knocked Shanker’s proposal. “There is more to restructuring than bonus payments to good teachers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos said. “The President’s merit-schools proposal takes a broader view, and offers a much greater chance for improving the education of students.”

Shanker conceded that persuading the White House to consider his proposals would be difficult. But, he added, the plan “does not stand or fall” on whether the President supports it. He expressed confidence that governors, businesses, and private foundations would respond to his ideas.

For his own proposal to succeed, Shanker said, school boards would have to be willing to waive all rules except those pertaining to health, safety, and civil rights; schools would have to be responsible for their own budgets; unions would have to suspend contract provisions that conflict with restructuring plans; and parents would need the option of choosing their children’s schools.

The union leader failed to spell out just how winning schools would be selected. He acknowledged that an effective means of assessing student and school progress would have to be found, and that it “would bear no resemblance to the current crop of multiple choice, standardized tests.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as A Call for ‘Real Incentives’