Education Opinion

An Effort To Find Common Ground On Paying Teachers for Performance

By Lamar Alexander, Don Cameron & Albert Shanker — August 17, 1983 18 min read
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At its recent annual meeting in Denver, the Education Commission of the States invited three prominent participants in the national debate on the topics of merit pay and master teachers to take part in a panel discussion on the issues. Following are excerpts from that debate between Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Don Cameron, executive director of the National Education Association, and Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.


Sometimes I feel like the little boy who volunteered to jump into the shark pool to see how many there were before everybody else jumped in. But there are more swimmers now, and let me get right to the point that I believe in very deeply.

For the last several months, I have cited one fact several times a day and that is that no state public-school system pays one teacher one penny more for doing a good job teaching.

Nearly everyone I say that to responds in the same way. They say, “Well, no wonder, no wonder they complain about a rising tide of mediocrity in public education when we reward mediocrity. If we want excellence we will have to reward excellence in teaching.”

Only one group tends to have a different response--although that is changing some--and that is teachers, many of whom can quickly give you a hundred reasons why it simply won’t work to pay teachers more money for doing a good job teaching.

Half of the problem is that on the great American stage of public education we are enacting a mystery drama which we might call “The Case of Mistaken Identity.” There are two villains in this mystery drama; two words--merit pay. We have commissions on merit pay, discussions on merit pay. But I don’t propose merit pay.

In fact, merit pay to most teachers means a pop-quiz evaluation with a small bonus for a few teachers at the end of it. I don’t believe any state in America is considering such a new proposal, and I don’t believe any state will enact such a proposal next year nor do I believe any state should. Instead, it is true that in an absolutely revolutionary development in the history of public education, virtually every state legislature will be considering in January something that almost none were considering last January--how to pay teachers more for doing a good job teaching in a way that will work.

My guess is none will enact the old merit pay ideas. But a dozen states next year will enact a different sort of proposal something like the Tennessee Master Teacher Plan. Further, every state that wants to have really superior public schools will be required to enact such a plan in the 1980’s.

The Tennessee Plan

The Tennessee master-teacher plan features a career ladder with four steps: apprentice and professional [ranks]--which we are all accustomed to; but also senior and master [ranks]--which we are not used to. It is optional for any teacher teaching today, mandatory for all new ones. It has a continuous five-year evaluation; it’s not a pop quiz.

There will be specific evaluation criteria available before the evaluation begins. These are being developed now by a group of lay persons and educators, and I am proud that eight of the 18 members are members of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). The evaluators of the teachers will be other teachers who understand that no two classrooms are alike. To minimize the effect of “local politics,” teachers being evaluated will have the right to remove from the evaluation panel any person they feel is biased.

There will be 11- and 12-month contracts, so that the best teachers can teach gifted youngsters in small classes in June and August, assist with curriculum development, and help other teachers.

There will be huge pay raises over the next three and a half years--a 20 percent across-the-board pay raise for all teachers. Then a $1,000 pay increase in addition for every tenured teacher--that is 87 percent of the teachers [in Tennessee]. Plus up to $6,000 more in increases for the 40 percent of the teachers who reach the highest range on the career ladder--senior and master teachers. All of this does not include what local districts may add.

So, one half of all of our teachers who have taught six years or more will be senior or master teachers or may be senior or master teachers at the end of three and a half years. Put another way, over the three and a half years, 87 percent of our teachers will get pay raises that will range from 27 percent to 70 percent. More than $3 million in new taxes will pay the bill for this master-teacher plan and nine other parts of a comprehensive education reform program.

You can raise standards [for students], you can buy computers, you can enrich the curriculum, you can extend the school year, but it will not help a bit as long as the teachers you are hiring are worse than the teachers they are replacing.

Restructure the Job

Pay is not the only problem. We need to restructure the profession. It should be a profession with a career pattern. Teachers should get additional prestige as well as pay if they teach well and if they are willing to work with other teachers to improve their performance.

The school should not be a factory with “assembly-line” teachers. Teaching should be more and more a year-round opportunity for those who want it and can qualify. The schools should be more collegial and less bureaucratic. The principal should be more like a college dean than a military commander. Peer review should be the order of the day. Career ladders should be steep enough to attract exceptional people. In Tennessee we are poor. But better schools mean better jobs; we are underskilled because we are undereducated.

My greatest disappointment is that I have spent most of this year trying to show the legislature how the [master-teacher] program would work, and the Tennessee Education Association has spent that time trying to show why it won’t work. I try to respect that difference and I hope they try to respect my impatience and I am optimistic about the next few months because of the leader-ship that is being shown in the legislature.

I hope that Mr. Shanker and Mr. Cameron won’t see this as a threat to their organizations. It will help the schools; it will make [for] a more professional career and it will get new members, I believe, for the organizations that help work it out.

I don’t blame teachers for anything that ails us. I blame the managers and the managers are the governors, legislators, and school boards. We are in charge, so let us be in charge, but we should take the blame.

And finally, the train is moving. We will try to understand that it is a big change for teachers, if you [the teachers] will try to understand that we don’t see why it is so hard to pay people more if they do well and that the public is demanding that move more rapidly than would be convenient for most teacher organizations. “Ride the horse in the direction the horse is going.” Please don’t use the fact that it is hard to grade teachers as an excuse. The teaching profession grades children A to F every six weeks and they can help us find a fair way to grade teachers every five years so that we can reward them and make [a teaching] career more professional.


Governor Alexander said that the train is moving. I agree, but we have to make sure that as far as the teachers are concerned it is a passenger train and not a freight train.

We have some concerns about some aspects of these proposals that are floating around the country. But the NEA also stands for a lot of things that we have in common with Governor Alexander and other governors and other members of state legislatures all across the land.

First let me define our terms. The NEA is opposed to merit pay if merit pay means the subjective evaluation of teachers in order to qualify for additional money. The NEA is not opposed to master-teacher plans. As a matter of fact, we support many of the elements of the master-teacher plans that are being promulgated around the country.

The California Teachers Association was a willing partner in the development of the master-teacher plan just [signed into law] in California and is very proud of the product.

So it does not have to be controversial. It does not have to be a set of obdurate people staring at each other. The NEA is not opposed to career ladders, the NEA is not opposed to 11- or 12-month contracts, year-round school, a longer school day; we are not opposed to pay increases across the board; we are not opposed to tighter standards for getting into a college of education and getting out of a college of education.

We support better evaluation procedures at the local school-board level, and we are not opposed to discussing merit pay with anybody that wants to talk about it, even though we have some serious concerns about it.

As a matter of fact, I want to applaud the initiative shown by Governor Alexander, Governor Robb [of Virginia], Governor Graham [of Florida], and many other leaders around the country. Our affiliates are cooperating in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and to one degree or another in many other states. My message is that as we move forward, we have to make sure that the practitioners, the people who are involved and the people who are going to be the recipients of all this political largesse are involved in the process.

You know, it is an old story and may be trite, but it reminds me of the chicken and the pig walking down the street and seeing the sign that said: “Bacon and eggs: 50.” The chicken wanted to stop and the pig said, “Well for you an egg is an act of love; for me bacon is a total commitment.”

For teachers, while everyone talks about merit pay, it affects them and it affects them dramatically, and they have some concerns about merit pay. We probably agree with 90 percent of what the Governor just said--but, oh that other 10 percent! And [although] we don’t agree that there is no merit-pay provision within the master-plan arrangement that he is proposing, I certainly [recognize] his right to propose it, advocate it, and push for change.

Teachers are leery of merit pay because it has not worked in the past. When teachers have been involved in merit-pay plans with school administrators and school boards, time after time after time over the last 20, 30, and 40 years, the plans have failed. Now they have failed not because of the goodwill of the people who entered these arrangements, but they have failed because they are hard to administer, because of a lack of funding after the plan was implemented, because of dissension and low morale among the teaching force, because of parental concerns about not having their children in a class where a merit teacher is doing meritorious stuff. These are real concerns of real people in a real world.

Teachers have plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but I also think we have a concurrent obligation to talk, to argue, to debate, to try to point out some of the fallacies in some of the plans and to try to work through those differences of opinion that we have.

The Governor has said that no school district in the country or no legislature pays one teacher one dollar more for extraordinary effort. In our estimation no legislature in the country is paying adequate salaries to the teachers who are in the buildings doing a very good job already. For people to talk about merit pay at a time when teachers are already feeling the pressure of inadequate salaries and all the other pressures of being in a classroom these days, is a little bit of putting the cart before the horse. For governors and legislators who want to promote merit pay and/or master-teacher plans, I say “talk with the teachers early, candidly, and in full.”

Many of the elements in the plan that is being proposed by Governor Alexander, I am sure, are acceptable to the members of the Tennessee Education Association. I feel very badly that there has been a lack of communication between the tea and the Governor over the details of implementing the plan, but the details, the processes that the teachers are concerned about, are legitimate concerns, and it is not sufficient for a governor or anybody else to say, “Look, let’s deal with the concepts now and we will worry about the details later.” The details are what the teachers have to live with every day and the details, while not important to a lot of people, are very important to the teachers. And it is a legitimate perspective and it is a legitimate point of view that needs to be discussed.

What should we all be striving for? As I said, I am sure that all of us in this room share some common goals. Let me--speaking for the N.E.A.--share with you what I think those common goals are, because I believe we must deal with this whole question of educational excellence and/or educational reform in a comprehensive way. It is a little bit disdainful that we have to focus in on some controversial issues like merit pay, which is only one piece of much larger pieces of the total package.

We are for higher standards for entering the profession. We would like to work with one and all to see that that is achieved. We think it is disgraceful that the standards for entering the profession are not higher than they are. We would like to see graduation requirements stiffened. We are not opposed to testing prospective teachers before they are hired, by peers, by administrators and so forth, so that every warm body that comes clunking out of a college or university is not offered a job.

We would like to see teacher salaries raised 20 percent--at least--right now, today. Why wait three and a half years? The average starting salary in this country for teachers is $12,500 a year. That is disgraceful! To talk to people about merit pay who are making $15,000, $16,000, or $17,000 after 15 or 20 years of experience in the classroom is an insult to many of them. Doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that a teachers’ union or a teachers’ association or teachers generally are opposed to giving more money to themselves? There has to be some reason why people are opposed to some aspects of some of these plans.

There is nothing that cannot be worked out through meaningful, honest, candid, open dialogue. But if one side or the other plays politics with the issue, if one side or the other becomes obdurate, and if one side or the other refuses to take a look at the comprehensive view, we are all going to suffer in the long run.

Many of the criticisms of the plan proposed by the Governor in Tennessee that have been offered by both Brother Shanker and the members of the tea are legitimate and they ought to be addressed. The plan has been modified several times since it was originally conceived, and I hope it will be modified some more until the teachers, and the Governor, and the legislature, can all stand together proudly and say: “We gave birth to this and it is a good thing and we are proud of it.”


The question posed, “Does extraordinary teaching deserve extraordinary rewards?” clearly answers itself. I should just say, “Yes,” and sit down. But it is clear that while the answer to that question has been and is and will continue to be “Yes,” answering the question in that way does not end the question. Rather it starts us on a study of a number of issues and problems.

Clearly the question is not, “Should it be done?” but, “How should it be done?”

The individuals in the legislatures and others interested in pursuing this area should keep in mind that there has already been a tremendous amount of research in this area in the private sector. The Harvard Business Review and almost every textbook on how to manage a business deal with the question of motivations, incentives, rewards, and performance evaluation.

And the literature is fascinating because if you ask the question, “Does providing performance incentives of this sort work?” there are just tons and tons of literature which show companies that have introduced [these concepts] and [by doing so] have inspired their employees; they have made them work harder, and they went on to greater and greater heights. That is one stack of literature.

The other stack, which is just as high, deals with the introduction of very similar plans in other places where the morale of the entire operation was destroyed, where the best people were not rewarded, where, indeed, they were driven out and where the company spent a lot of money and destroyed its effectiveness.

So what this really tells us is that we are dealing with a question that is very difficult in terms of implementation. Indeed, the private sector, which is being held up as a model here, does not have precise and clear-cut answers, and so, it is something that we ought to move on rather carefully. We ought to realize that what we are doing here entails a matter of risk.

I would associate myself with all the critical comments that Don Cameron has made on this. I believe that the traditional opposition of teachers and their organizations is justified in many places. Merit pay was, “Well, we don’t have enough money to give a pay raise to all of the teachers, but we will be glad to give it to the few good ones,” which adds insult to injury. The already low-paid ones are also told that they are also not very good teachers, and a handful of people get the money. Frequently it is a shift of money. School systems say, “There is only enough to do a certain amount, so we cannot give everybody [a raise]. We will do it for the few.”

Then there are the questions of the subjectivity [of the evaluations], and, in most of these plans, the validity of the criteria. The superintendent’s job and the principal’s job are not really the same as the teacher’s job. And even if you do not have a principal or superintendent who is deliberately out to reward the wrong people, the nature of the administrator’s job--which is to keep paperwork moving, to satisfy political constituents within the community, to maintain a certain amount of political support to get their own contracts renewed--may very well result in rewards being given for other reasons than outstanding classroom teaching.

I am very happy to see that the plan that Governor Alexander has come forward with avoids all of the traditional criticisms of merit pay and, therefore, if we want to call it “new merit pay” or “merit pay” or “career” or something else, what we really ought to say is that it is not the same thing that we have been talking about all of these years. It is a new proposal. It is brand new. As far as I know, nothing like it has ever been offered before. It deserves discussion. I think that there are many elements in it that are very exciting and we are more than willing to talk. I have not seen the details and I think that Don Cameron’s statements on that are perfectly correct. But in terms of the concepts, I think that there is a lot there that deserves support.

There is only one item in the Governor’s speeches and public statements that is more than a detail in that I would find it impossible to go along with. That is the idea that teachers should be recertified every five years.

I accept the general notion of recertification. But we will do it when everybody else does--doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, architects. But we do not want to be the first ones selected for that or the only ones selected for it. It is a lot more dangerous to have doctors going around practicing after 20 years out of medical school than it is to have a math teacher who needs to be recertified.

Let me move on. Suppose that we do have an outstanding plan here. Suppose that this is a plan which next week Don Cameron, Al Shanker, and everybody else can come together with Governor Alexander and shake hands and say, “It’s great. We can go along with it,” or if we say, “It’s not great, but we can go along with it anyway.” There is still another question and that is, even if it is a plan that is acceptable, if you have a certain amount of money, is this the best way to spend it? I would argue that even if [such a master-teacher plan] is acceptable--and I believe that something very much like it is or will be [acceptable]--that it really should not be the front-burner issue today. And it is too bad that it is crowding out other issues on the national education agenda.

I will ask another question: “Even if we don’t think that this is the best strategy, should we support it?”

I have given some critical support to it for really two reasons. One is that it may very well be that the only way to get the public in Tennessee or some other state to support a massive infusion of funds in improvement of education is to go with something like this. That does not mean that I agree with the public and it does not mean that they are right. But we are all practical people and if the difference is getting nothing because the public feels that you are doing the same old thing or getting a tremendous infusion of new funds by doing something that we don’t think is perfect or absolutely right, I think the right strategy is to involve the public and get the additional support.

Secondly, it [would be] absolutely tragic if, at a time when we are on the verge of great additional public support for education, teachers or any other group were viewed as an obstacle to educational reform, improvement, and change. It is unfortunate that we have made this the one issue. I would like to get off of it. I hope that we can--as there seems to be agreement in California and Florida--that we can do this in state after state, then start dealing with the issues of how to attract teachers in the first place.

Our attitude toward these proposals in the aft is based on a perception of what we think the world out there is like. We think that not only do we have great opportunities now for bringing about massive improvement in education, but we also have great dangers. The Supreme Court of the United States has just said that some form of tax credits or tax deductions for religious and nonpublic schools is constitutional. By a vote of five to four, but nevertheless, there it is. It is now the law of the land. I think that if we start quibbling about what to do in terms of improving public education, if that public out there gets very impatient and says, “These people cannot put their act together, they are too busy fighting each other, there is too much conflict, there is too much self interest,” I think what will happen is clear and inevitable--that the public will give up on public schools and say, “Let’s break up this whole thing. Let’s give people some money to get their kids out of public schools and into private schools.”

Now, we have a great public-school system in this country. It has been great. It will be greater. If we tear it apart, if we give people money to send their children to private schools, if we start selling our public schools to private schools, start moving our teachers out, start selling our textbooks and everything else--like Humpty Dumpty, it will never be put back together again.

A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 1983 edition of Education Week as An Effort To Find Common Ground On Paying Teachers for Performance


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