Education Opinion

Where Is the ‘Merit’ in New Merit-Pay Plans?

By Lawrence A. Uzzell — September 14, 1983 11 min read

Superior teachers should be paid more than mediocre teachers. Most Americans agree with this idea, and so did three high-powered national commissions whose reports helped propel education reform to the top of the nation’s agenda.

During the last five months, merit pay has received more favorable attention from the press and politicians than any education proposal since the 1950’s. The President, at least three of his Democratic opponents, and the National Governors Association have embraced the concept. A broad spectrum of columnists and editorial writers has kept it before the public eye. In short, conditions ought to be propitious for this reform. By the end of 1984, we should see scores of state legislatures acting to revise the monolithic pay systems that so starkly and mindlessly embody the education establishment’s obsession with equality at the expense of excellence.

Unfortunately, the evidence so far strongly suggests this is not likely to happen. It is not likely because the education establishment is skillful at disguising trivial adjustments as fundamental reforms, and politicians lack either the knowledge or the will to reject these disguises. The evidence suggests that most of the upcoming “reform” plans will include merit pay in name only.

That evidence consists chiefly of the two comprehensive state-level education reform bills that have been enacted since the current push began-in Florida and California. Both included sections labeled “merit pay.”

The California plan, which was signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian on July 28, would create a new category of “mentor teachers,” who would be nominated by teacher-controlled committees and selected by local school boards.

Mentor teachers would receive $4,000 bonuses above their current salaries, and would be relieved of up to 40 percent of the time they now spend teaching children. They would spend that free time on activities like curriculum development and “assistance and guidance to new teachers.”

Whatever the merits of this arrangement, it should be obvious that it is not merit pay. Merit pay is a system in which teachers get paid more for doing better work-not more work or different work. As the National Commission on Excellence in Education put it, merit pay is “performance-based ... so that superior teachers can be rewarded .... " As the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth put it, merit pay provides “extraordinary rewards for extraordinary teachers ... not just for reaching the upper levels of seniority, but for reaching the upper levels of competence and effectiveness as well.” As the Council for Basic Education put it, merit pay is “any program in which some teachers get more pay than others as a result of a conscious judgment that they are more competent.”

Real merit pay thus rewards teachers for the quality, not the type or amount, of work they do. That is precisely why teachers’ unions find it so hard to swallow. As the economist Roger Arnold points out, “In any group of persons, only a tiny minority are exceptional.” The president of the National Education Association (N.E.A.) ''knows he is not there to represent the minority of superior teachers, but the vast majority of nonsuperior teachers.”

But plans like California’s are acceptable to the N.E.A. because they do not exclude nonsuperior teachers from “mentor” status, with its $4,000 bonus, as long as those teachers are willing to take on new assignments. The genuinely superior teacher who does not seek new assignments but prefers to continue spending 100 percent of the time doing what he or she already does superbly-working with children-is not eligible.

After this plan had passed both houses of the California legislature, its sponsors made it crystal-clear that quantity, not quality, would be the key. Gary Hart, chairman of the State Senate’s Education Committee, said, “I’m uncomfortable with saying we’re going to pay someone more than another teacher who is doing the same thing.” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said, ''The prototype is the football coach or drama coach. We pay them more to take on extra work.”

Actually, Mr. Honig’s analogy is not entirely accurate. California’s new “mentor teachers” will not be adding new tasks to their existing ones, but substituting them. The California plan will thus compound a problem that has been growing steadily worse as the education system has become more centralized and bureaucratized during the last two decades: The system rewards teachers for leaving the classroom. As one Sacramento observer noted: “This is not merit pay, but basically a staff-development bill.”

The California plan does have one virtue that the new law in Florida lacks. It places an absolute limit on the number of teachers who can be designated as “mentor teachers,” and that number is small-a maximum of 5 percent of all the certified teachers in any district.

Florida’s Educational Reform Act of 1983, which passed in June, has no such limit. In fact, it contains virtually no standards of any kind for merit pay, but merely creates a council to study the issue and propose a statewide plan next year. Nevertheless, the legislature appropriated $80 million for 1984-85 to implement a plan yet to be formulated, and Gov. Robert Graham proudly told a Washington audience in July that “Florida today is the first state in America to act on the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, ... the first to pass a statewide plan of merit pay for teachers.”

But it is not at all clear that Florida will get a system in which teachers are paid significantly more for doing better work. What is clear is that at best only part, and perhaps none, of the $80 million supposedly appropriated for merit pay will in fact be spent for that purpose. At least three entirely distinct initiatives of the Educational Reform Act are to be financed with this $80 million, and at least two of these will be based on the principle of “more pay for more work” rather than “more pay for better work.”

One of the three initiatives would provide extra salary increments for longer work days. Another is a “career ladder” plan that would allow a teacher to apply for status as an “associate master teacher” or “master teacher.” The applicant would have to meet four criteria, and a superior performance evaluation is only one of the four. The other three are attendance, graduate study, and seniority. Thus, this “new” plan will depend heavily on the same paper credentials that make existing pay systems so ludicrously ineffective.

The third initiative is called “merit pay.” Whether it actually is merit pay remains unclear, because the legislation simply defers all the key decisions. Will the plan be truly selective, or will most teachers in the state end up receiving extra pay? Will extra pay depend mainly on better work, or merely more or different work? And how much of the $80 million will go to this initiative as opposed to the other two, which are clearly not merit pay? Until Florida’s new Quality Instruction Incentives Council issues its report in January 1984, and the legislature accepts or rejects its recommendations, there is no way to know. As Robert Palaich of the Education Commission of the States observed, “In a sense they haven’t done anything yet.”

Mr. Palaich also noted that the law requires the council to give considerable weight to collective bargaining as a procedure for developing merit-pay plans, and that this procedure will give Florida’s teacher-union locals even more opportunity to tilt these plans away from real merit pay. “I would tend to think,” he said, “that collective bargaining would lead, as it historically has led, to more pay for more work” rather than more pay for better work.

Thus, Florida’s education establishment succeeded in enacting a $230-million tax increase, earmarked entirely for its own use, by invoking the vision of an overwhelmingly popular reform without ever actually committing itself to enacting that reform. At the other end of the country, the establishment increased its share of California’s budget by $468.5 million, of which a mere $10.5 million will finance a provision that can be called “merit pay” only if the term is diluted into absurdity.

Both Florida and California attached the image of merit pay to the reality of large pay raises for all teachers regardless of merit. In Florida, these pay hikes range from 7 to 10 percent, depending on local bargaining. In California, they are expected to range from 7 to 11 percent. In both states, the ordinary citizen has been led to believe that the public schools are finally, decisively abolishing the uniform salary schedules whose evils he has been hearing about for the last five months. In both states, the teachers’ unions and their allies know that the really important change in teacher salaries is that they will simply be bigger.

Thus the Florida and California stories do not make pleasant reading for any citizen or policymaker interested in genuine reform. But they do provide several useful lessons:

First, the education establishment is one of the most reform-proof special interests in the country. It has extraordinary ability to feign agreement with its critics, put itself in charge of a so-called “reform” process, and then use that very process to organize new raids on the public purse while perpetuating the very evils it claims to be correcting.

Second, governors and state legislators have not yet found effective ways to protect the public interest from establishment lobbyists who are incomparably better-organized than the citizens whom they exploit. The long, complicated “omnibus” reform bill like that used in Florida or California would seem to be exactly the wrong way to proceed, because its intricacies readily lend themselves to manipulation. Would-be reformers in elective offices should instead follow the 1981 (not 1982 or 1983) example of Ronald Reagan, who concentrated on just a few simple and easy-to-follow priorities like across-the-board tax cuts. They should try to invent an education equivalent of the Kemp-Roth Bill, which could be used both as a campaign document and as a piece of serious legislation.

Third, winning elections is not enough. California’s new state school superintendent campaigned in 1982 as an explicit foe of the establishment and champion of fundamental reforms, but within six months of assuming office he had been co-opted by the enemies of merit pay. The establishment is just as active after election day as before, and reformers need to create the same kind of permanent institutional presence--think tanks, lobbies, conferences, and the like--in every state capital and in Washington.

Fourth, fundamental reform in the behavior of state and local education agencies seems to be impossible without fundamental reform in the structure of these agencies-- i.e., decentralization and consumer sovereignty. Supporters of fundamental reform such as the members of the California Business Roundtable, assumed they could pursue merit pay and other changes designed to benefit the consumers of educational services--parents and children--through a decision-making process dominated by the providers of these services--teachers and administrators. They actually supported changes that would make the decision- making structure even more centralized than it already was. At least as far as merit pay is concerned, it is now obvious that this strategy produced only the illusion of reform.

Two months before the California bill was passed, John Coons, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley and a longtime champion of education reform, gave the Roundtable a prophetic warning about the reform plans it had produced: “These recommendations fly in the face of all the principles of enterprise, competition, and reasonable regulation that form the heart of a lively economy. Surely it is an irony that a business group recommends more bureaucratic solutions to bureaucratic problems .... If California continues to rely upon government compulsion and union self-interest to decide what is good education, this society will continue its all too evident intellectual decline.”

Unfortunately, it is all too likely that other states will repeat the pattern set by Florida and California. Like ''bait and switch” con artists, the enemies of genuine reform will use merit pay as a lure to attract more dollars into structures that have already failed, including hefty pay raises for teachers who should not even be in classrooms. They will continue to treat “more work” and ''better work” as interchangeable concepts. They will permit standards of “merit” so elastic that almost any teacher who is just adequately competent will be able to meet them. They will use the drive for reform as a vehicle to make education policy even more centralized in state capitals and even less accountable to the consumers than ever.

Supporters of real merit pay can insist on two provisions to combat the e tactics. First, at least half of any new funds appropriated for teacher pay should go into real merit-pay programs as defined above, not into substitutes. Second, a strict ceiling should be set on the number of teachers who can receive merit bonuses-preferably not more than 10 or 15 percent.

But even more important, supporters of merit pay should recognize that the very concept of “superior individual merit” is unwelcome in today’s super-centralized administrative and regulatory agencies. By their very nature, big bureaucracies tend to treat individuals as interchangeable cogs in the machinery. In the long run, merit pay can flourish only in a climate of deregulation, decentralization, and consumer sovereignty. The sooner reformers recognize that excellence and monopoly are inherently incompatible, the sooner we can all concentrate on the battles that really count.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 1983 edition of Education Week