Some states have already enacted--and almost all others are considering--a statute that promises to reward outstanding teachers and to improve teaching in general. The “and” is instructive. In most cases, one bill is supposed to accomplish both goals.
This attempt to strengthen classroom teaching by filling some teachers’ pockets with merit pay is at best unwise, at worst counterproductive. By attempting to use one program to reach two very different objectives, governors, legislators, and state education officials may only achieve minimal progress toward both. In addition, there may be a legacy of resentment from hordes of angry teachers who charge that the State House measures were more political than principled.
The bureaucracy being created to administer merit-pay plans is awesome to behold. I have observed it most closely in Tennessee and Florida, two states that have been pacesetters in merit pay. In these states and others, merit pay has produced dozens of new department of education officials who administer the new “career-ladder” or “differentiated-staffing” or “master-teacher” programs; manuals, flowing on for 1,000 or more pages, that instruct teachers on how to teach in a certain way likely to be deemed meritorious, and how to demonstrate that they are doing that teaching; and cadres of quickly trained supervisors and evaluators who roam the state with their own confused ideas about whether their job is to help teachers or simply to find and identify the best ones.
Were the subject less serious than the education of our youth, this frenzy might be laughable. For example, many teachers, having been told that snapshots provide acceptable documentation of good teaching, now keep a loaded camera in their desks. Thus, when English teacher Jones constructs his new bulletin board that shows a choo-choo train going through ''New England Literature Land,” with a boxcar labeled ''Emerson,’' another called ''Thoreau,’' and so on, he simply takes a picture of it so he will have something to show the visiting evaluator. When teacher A advises teacher B to flunk student C, both teachers write about a “shared professional exchange” in their ubiquitous journals.
The word “portfolio” has become part of the educational jargon in many states. These portfolios consist of the mountains of data teachers accumulate to show how deserving they are of merit pay. Typically requiring 40 or more hours of work to assemble, such collections include the snapshots, the journals, the lesson plans designed according to state-approved formats, the names and topics of inservice sessions, and the names of teachers who were given special “consulting” help. Portfolios also contain descriptions of “vivids,” another new coinage. A “vivid” occurs when a teacher does something out of the ordinary. One state education official who trains merit-pay “evaluators” suggested that a teacher could be “vivid” by wearing an unusual hat to class.
These attempts to make teachers prove their effectiveness have several counterproductive side effects. Good teachers are forced to teach in ways they may not believe in or trust. They must spend hours accumulating, developing, and presenting the materials for their portfolios--hours that, ironically, come out of their teaching time. They may do all these things and still get no merit pay. In Florida (where the merit pay plan is being reconsidered by state officials), the 1985 Florida teacher of the year did not qualify for merit pay. Teachers often become somewhat careful about handing out free advice when the teacher next door may, quite literally, profit from the suggestion.
Despite my reservations about what has happened so far, though, I believe merit pay can work. What’s needed is a new system. But what I have in mind is so simple that it may not be given a second glance by education bureaucrats, who seem to value plans according to their complexity and the amount of new money and personnel they require. I propose nonetheless: Let’s simply vote for the best teachers and award them merit pay.
But who knows who the best teachers are? Almost anyone associated with schools for any length of time does--students, teachers, administrators, support staff, graduates, and parents. If all these people were asked to name the finest teachers, their collective judgment would result in an accurate consensus about who the deserving teachers are.
Here’s how the plan would work: In middle, junior, and senior high schools, the names of all teachers who have been at a school for at least three years would be placed on a ballot. (Newer teachers, who need time either to learn their craft or to adjust to a particular school, would not be eligible.) The ballot would say: “Check the names of the three (or five or eight--about 10 percent of the total) best teachers in this school.” The ballots would be distributed in early May to all teachers, administrators, and students, and to randomly selected graduates of the past three years. (In the elementary grades, students wouldn’t vote; their parents would.) Schools would count the ballots in late May, and merit-pay winners would be announced and awarded in early June. I intentionally stress a bonus-a one-shot, lump-sum payment, not a permanent salary addition. This would prevent a teacher from perpetually receiving money for one good year, and would encourage other teachers to try harder next time.
It is fair to ask if this program would be popular with teachers. Perhaps, perhaps not. But I’m convinced that, overall, teachers would like the simplicity of this system, the short duration of its award procedure, and, above all, the common sense at its core. Additionally, the plan would not require any extra work from the recipients. Currently, in some states, as we’ve seen, merit-pay recipients must undertake special assignments or projects in order to earn the rewards that are supposedly awarded for outstanding teaching.
Administrators would like the plan. They would be able to concentrate more on instructional improvement and less on evaluations and the difficult process of choosing winners and losers. Former graduates would be linked in a thoughtful way to their previous schooling. Imagine how beneficial it could be to have 7th graders reflect on their elementary teachers, how useful to have college juniors evaluate their high-school instructors.
Obviously, there are potential flaws in the system, but none of them is insurmountable. There is always the danger, for example, that to some students the system would amount to nothing more than a popularity contest. And students could band together to “get” a teacher they don’t like personally. But, over time, the system would be taken seriously by the majority of students. 1t is also true that many teachers would automatically vote for themselves, but with many different groups voting, the self-selectors would cancel themselves out. One often hears about first-rate teachers who really do hide their lights under bushels, and whose work is not well known by their colleagues. Others are good ''lounge teachers” who talk about teaching better than they practice it. A few teachers probably would pander to students. But such things are aberrations, exceptions. Many of them presuppose ignoble motives among members of a profession that, for the most part, attracts people of honesty and good will who are willing to tackle the tough work of teaching for little reward or respect.
Think of the possible gains if the system were given a chance in schools. Teachers could work all year at their teaching, giving almost no time or attention to merit pay. They would not have to record their every action in journals or take pictures for their portfolios. States could allocate merit- pay funds to the schools and, thus, the politicians could tell their constituencies that they trust the local districts and individual schools to make decisions about good teaching. State departments of education could dismantle their merit-pay bureaucracies and concentrate on another important goal: finding ways to improve classroom practice. Good teachers would get recognition and respect from their communities because their selection would be news in the local media. Students would have a real voice in the evaluation procedure, and parents would become more involved with the schools.
Best of all, good teachers would be rewarded. And that is what merit pay is all about.
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1985 edition of Education Week