Reagan’s Merit-Pay Advocacy Catches N.E.A. Off Guard

By Thomas Toch — July 27, 1983 6 min read
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President Reagan’s campaign on behalf of merit pay, now more than eight weeks old, has thrown the leadership of the National Education Association (nea) off balance and has provoked a debate within the organization over the issue, recent events and interviews with union officials suggest.

The internal debate has serious implications for the organization, several of its leaders say, because any changes in the way teachers are rewarded would inevitably affect how instruction is delivered, how schools are organized, and what role teachers’ unions play in such areas as collective bargaining.

“Talk of master teachers and differentiated staffing implies a good, hard look at the traditional single-teacher, single-class concept,” said one official. “That’s a pretty big bullet to bite, and some in the nea don’t want to do it.”

But other nea staff members, while describing themselves as “infuriated” over what they see as the President’s “purely partisan” interest in education issues, also say Mr. Reagan’s promotion of merit pay and his assault on the nea may be “a blessing in disguise.” (See related story on page 9.)

It is causing the union, they say, to turn its attention back to professional issues after a number of years of focusing on broader national and international public-policy concerns under the leadership of Ter-ry Herndon. Mr. Herndon resigned as executive director on June 1.

“There wasn’t going to be much [education] reform under Herndon,” one official said.

One indication that Mr. Reagan’s merit-pay offensive caught the 1.6-million-member union off guard is the inconsistancy of its early public statements on the issue.

Shortly before Mr. Reagan’s first reference to the issue in a commencement address at Seton Hall University on May 21, Mr. Herndon said the union would fight the master-teacher plan proposed by Gov. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee and similar plans introduced “anywhere” else. About two weeks later, his successor, Don Cameron, said the union was not opposed in principle to the idea of paying better teachers higher salaries, the central premise of the Tennessee plan.

Simultaneously, the organization’s president, Willard McGuire, was echoing Mr. Herndon’s opposition to the idea of linking pay to performance in numerous newspaper, magazine, and television interviews.

“Cameron was saying one thing, McGuire was saying another,” said an nea official.

The sudden prominence of the merit-pay issue not only surprised nea officials but came just as the union was going through a major shift in leadership.

In addition to Mr. Cameron’s move into the executive directorship (10 days after Mr. Reagan’s first mention of merit pay at Seton Hall), several other leadership positions were changing hands. On July 2, Mary Hatwood Futrell, an Alexandria, Va., business teacher who is the nea’s current secretary-treasurer, was elected at the organization’s annual meeting in Philadelphia to succeed Mr. McGuire as president, beginning September 1.

At the same meeting, the nea’s 7,200 delegates also elected a new vice president, and two at-large members of the organization’s nine-member policymaking executive committee.

Alluding to the difficulty the union has had in moving out of the defensive posture the President’s activism has placed it in, one nea leader said: “The timing by the Reagan people couldn’t have been better.’'

Both Mr. Cameron and Ms. Futrell have publicly expressed a willingness to consider alternatives to the single-salary schedule and both have signaled their intention to refocus the nea’s efforts on “professional and instructional” issues.

“Retain and Reward”

In Congressional testimony in late June, Ms. Futrell outlined conditions under which the nea would “seriously review and consider” plans to “retain and reward excellent teachers.”

These stipulations include an assurance that a plan not be in lieu of “competitive” entry-level salaries, the provision of a “career ladder” that allows all teachers the chance for career development and higher salaries, and a role for teachers in the development of such plans.

This new conciliatory public posture has been dictated, nea officials say, at least in part by “political realism.”

“If we get rigid [on teacher-compensation issues], it’s quite obvious we are going to make ourselves politically unacceptable,” said one.

But internally, the nea leadership is moving very cautiously on the issue.

The organization’s top staff members held a three-day meeting on merit pay at a Washington hotel in early June to familiarize themselves with the issue and begin to explore ways to “outflank” what was viewed as the combined efforts of the Reagan Administration and the rival American Federation of Teachers (aft) to cast the nea as an opponent of reforms in the teaching profession, a senior nea official said.

At its annual meeting held this month in Los Angeles, the aft passed a resolution stating that “while merit pay is not aft policy, under certain circumstances state federations may feel the need to negotiate’’ plans that “allow the advancement of large numbers of teachers to ‘master teacher’ type career roles involving extra pay.”

The aft also announced that it will create an “Advisory Commission on Educational Quality” made up of leaders from “all walks of life” to advise the union on ways to implement educational reforms. In addition, President Reagan addressed the aft convention, as did Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who advocated the need for reforms in the teaching profession, such as the master-teacher plan he has proposed in Tennessee.

Mr. Cameron earlier this month called merit pay and teacher competency “tertiary issues"--"the symptoms rather than the disease,"--when he addressed nearly 10,000 nea convention delegates and members, an audience that strongly opposed the idea of linking pay to performance.

Many of the nea delegates in Philadelphia, who are elected at the local level, said they were opposed to the concept on the grounds that such schemes would necessarily be fraught with favoritism. One unsuccessful candidate for the organization’s vice presidency, Donald Hill, former president of the Minnesota Education Association, based his campaign primarily on opposition to merit pay.

Categorically Opposed to Plan

The delegates adopted a statement asserting that the “nea is categorically opposed to any plan, whether designated a merit-pay plan, a master-teacher plan, or by some other name, that bases the compensation of teachers on favoritism, subjective evaluation in the absence of clearly defined performance criteria, student achievement, or other arbitrary standards.”

And they reiterated the union’s policy against pay schedules that discriminate “as to grade or subject taught,” such as the Houston school system’s four-year-old policy of paying higher salaries to teachers in shortage areas.

“There is a tremendous amount of uneasiness among the membership on the teacher-pay issue,” one official said. “They are leary of any shift away from a hardline policy.”

The nea delegates also voted to set up a “Teacher Task Force” to provide a “teacher perspective” on the various proposals for reform being generated by the recent national reports on schooling. The panel, to be headed by Ms. Futrell, will offer its own recommendations for reform and will review existing nea policies to see if modifications are needed to accommodate some of the reform proposals.

The union plans to monitor na-tionally all developments involving the teacher-compensation issue. To do that, it is setting up an internal clearinghouse to handle legal, legislative, and technical information about various merit-pay and master-teacher plans as they develop.

But there is currently no consensus among the nea leadership on the question of how far the union should go in advocating reforms that would change and “differentiate” the roles and responsibilities of teachers, said one nea official.

Some of the organization’s leaders, the official said, are pressing for the union to promote such reforms on the grounds that they would upgrade the teaching profession.

But others, sensitive to the skepticism of the union’s rank-and-file membership towards changes in the single-salary schedule, are more hesitant.

A version of this article appeared in the July 27, 1983 edition of Education Week as Reagan’s Merit-Pay Advocacy Catches N.E.A. Off Guard


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