States’ Teacher-Incentive Plans Are Hitting Snags

By Thomas Toch — April 11, 1984 7 min read

In the wake of last year’s reports on schooling, a number of states--including Florida, California, Illinois, and Arkansas--moved rapidly to bolster their teaching ranks. In most cases, they established programs to toughen the evaluation of teachers and reward the best ones.

But now, as the plans are moved off the drawing boards, they are proving to be contentious and difficult to implement. Some of the difficulties are suggested by recent developments in several states:

Florida. To be eligible to apply to the state’s new incentive-pay plan, which will offer two promotions within four years and raise salaries by up to $5,000 a year, teachers must pass an examination in their subject area.

But last week, officials in the Florida State Department of Education said that they had been able to find reliable examinations in only six of the 48 subjects the state licenses teachers in.

Roger M. Nichols, deputy commissioner of education, said, “We don’t know what we’re going to do” about the lack of reliable tests. Gov. Robert Graham, who shepherded the pay-incentive through the state legislature last year, has called a meeting of his cabinet--which also acts as the state board of education--on April 19 to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, the Governor last week moved the deadline by which teachers must apply to the program from April 2 to April 20 because an ambiguity in the wording of the application form needed to be corrected. The first participants in the program are to be named next fall.

A Gallup poll released earlier this month indicates that 76 percent of Florida’s teachers oppose merit pay. But according to state officials, more than 27,000 of Florida’s 90,000 teachers have applied for the pay-incentive program, 10,000 more than the state had expected.

“We know they need the money. That’s why we didn’t ask them to boycott the program, even though it is not going to pick out the best teachers,” said Sam Rosales, head of the independent union that represents teachers in the Tampa area.

However, the 4,000-member Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association--an affiliate of the National Education Association--is boycotting the plan. Thus far, only about 10 percent of the teachers in Pinellas County have applied to the program, compared with figures ranging from 17 to 63 percent in other areas of the state, according to school officials.

Sandra Grant, a teacher on an advisory panel set up by the Florida legislature to implement the pay-incentive law, is also boycotting the plan, even though she is eligible to apply to it.

“The [selection system] is unfair and I’m not going to subject myself to it,” she said.

Pat Tornillo, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ Florida affiliate, has suggested that his union may take the state to court over the selection criteria, which, in addition to the test, require teachers to have four years of teaching experience, have no “unexcused absences” in two of the past three years, hold a master’s degree, and then pass a three-person evaluation.

California. Gov. George Deukmejian last week sent a letter to the legislative sponsors of the state’s new “mentor-teacher” program expressing his “displeasure” that the program, and other education reforms enacted last year, had not yet been implemented in many of the state’s school systems.

Several days earlier, Mr. Deuk-mejian held a press conference at which he released a survey done by his staff showing that about one-third of the systems that enroll 90 percent of the state’s students did not have a mentor-teacher program in place. State law called for up to 5 percent of the teachers in each school system to be selected as mentor teachers this semester and during the 1984-85 school year.

Those selected this semester will earn an extra $2,000 and take on new responsibilities, such as developing curriculum materials. Those selected next fall will earn $4,000.

The Governor criticized local teacher unions in the state for delaying the implementation of the mentor-teacher programs by insisting on collective-bargaining concessions--such as “agency-shop” provisions--in exchange for their endorsement of the mentor program.

Said William Cunningham, Governor Deukmejian’s assistant for education: “The unions and all other parties had a chance to negotiate the reforms before the legislation was passed. Everyone signed off on them. It strikes us as a breach of faith for the unions to come in after the fact and demand negotiations on the mentor-teacher program.”

He acknowledged, and legislative sources confirmed, that mentor-teacher plans can, by law, be brought to the bargaining table.

Bill Honig, California’s superintendent for public instruction, released his own survey of the state’s 1,026 school systems on the mentor-teacher issue last week. According to his findings, schools systems with 90 percent of the state’s students have implemented mentor-teacher programs.

“The response has been much greater than we expected,” Mr. Honig said.

The California mentor-teacher program is funded only through the 1984-85 school year. The legislature appropriated $10 million for it this year, enough for $2,000 bonuses for 2 percent of the some 185,000 teachers in the state, and $31 million for the next school year, enough for $4,000 bonuses for 3 percent of the state’s teachers.

Michael B. Bennett, vice president of the United Teachers-Los Angeles, said Governor Deukmejian “doesn’t know what he is talking about” when he criticizes the unions for insisting on working out the details of the mentor-teacher plans at the bargaining table.

Asked whether he thought such a modest program with an uncertain future could improve the quality of teaching in the state, he said, “Labeling a few percent of the teacher good and the rest not-so good may cause real problems.”

Arkansas. Don R. Roberts, director of the Arkansas State Department of Education, said last week that he would recommend to the state board of education at a meeting scheduled for April 15 that the implementation of a controversial test for the state’s 26,000 teachers be delayed from December 1984 to the spring of 1985.

He said the test, which Gov. William Clinton has described as essential in winning public support for higher expenditures for education in Arkansas and a “first step” in raising the standards in the state’s teaching profession, cannot be ready until then.

“Testing consultants say we couldn’t come up with a legally defensible test by the current deadline,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Arkansas Education Association has indicated it intends to challenge the test in court, Mr. Roberts said.

Under a law pushed by Governor Clinton and passed by the Arkansas legislature last year, the state’s teachers will have to pass a test of basic skills by 1987 or risk losing their jobs.

But, Mr. Roberts acknowledged, it is likely to be well after 1987 before many teachers are dismissed under the testing law.

Those who fail the test of basic mathematics, reading, and writing skills next year will be required to take part in remedial programs sponsored by their school systems and then take the test again, Mr. Roberts said. They may take the state-sponsored examination as often as it administered until 1987.

But at that point, the state will take action only against those teachers whose contracts are up for renewal. Since a teacher’s license is valid for six years in Arkansas, teachers who have failed to pass the test by 1987, but whose contracts were renewed in 1986, will be able to remain in the profession until 1992, Mr. Roberts said.

“It will be long time before anyone is in jeopardy of losing their job,” he said.

Teachers in the state will also have to pass a test in their subject area or earn six hours of college credit in their field.

Illinois. Next week, the State Board of Education plans to announce the state’s first 500 master teachers under a $630,000 program established by Gov. James R. Thompson last summer.

Funded for only one year and providing a modest $1,000 bonus to a tiny percentage of the state’s teachers, the plan is similar to merit-pay plans abandoned by many school systems and states during the past several decades.

Teachers’ organizations in the state have attacked the plan and only 2,200 of the state’s 125,000 teachers applied to the program, according to the state’s figures.

“The program is too small to do anything,” said Nancy Young, an official of the Illinois Education Association.

“It clearly is not going to change the quality of education in the state,” she continued.

“How can we support merit pay when teachers all over the state are losing their jobs,” she added. “One of our members was named one of the 500 master teachers and was riffed the next day.”

But the union opposed a proposal by the Illinois board of education to increase funding for the master-teacher program to $20-million during the 1984-85 school year on the grounds that the money instead should be included in the state’s general aid to school systems. The board is now urging the state legislature to appropriate $5 million for the program next year.

Nonetheless, the union has urged its members to apply for the $1,000 grants.

“Someone is going to get the money,” Ms. Young said. “And we feel we represent quality teaching.”

Jerry D. Foster, coordinator of the plan for the state department of education, said it is “a reasonable effort in the right direction.” He said it was not a merit-pay plan, but rather a “recognition program.”

Correspondent Patti Breckenridge in Tampa contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as States’ Teacher-Incentive Plans Are Hitting Snags