Tennessee Governor Presses Master-Teacher Proposal

By Thomas Toch — March 16, 1983 8 min read
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Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is mounting a carefully crafted, eclectic lobbying effort to win state legislative approval for his bold plan to introduce a statewide merit-pay system for teachers.

His initiative has attracted the close attention of the two leading national teachers’ unions, whose leaders say the passage of the Tennessee plan may kindle similar moves in other states.

After announcing the so-called “master teacher” plan in January, the Governor began touring the state to promote it among civic clubs, parent-teacher associations, and school administrators; he even made the plan the topic of an address to the state manufacturers’ association--which has since endorsed it.

12-Person Task Force

A 12-person task force of officials “on loan” from the Governor’s office and other state agencies--six of whom have worked on Mr. Alexander’s two successful gubernatorial campaigns--has been set up to push the plan. It has established a speakers’ bureau and toll-free telephone hotlines, and has spent $17,000 printing and mailing a four-page flier on the 45 most-asked questions about the plan. Some Tennessee state legislators have dubbed the task-force members “Alexander’s political operatives.”

The Governor also made an unprecedented appearance before a joint meeting of the state’s House and Senate education committees in a hearing room packed with supporters of the master-teacher plan, many of whom sported buttons reading “Master Teacher Now.”

And Governor Alexander, seeking support beyond the education community, wooed a dozen of Tennessee’s top lobbyists with a reception at his executive residence. Representatives of the state’s beer, liquor, insurance, grocery, and real-estate industries were among those who heard the Governor’s pitch on master teachers.

Local political observers said lobbyists have not been personally courted like that since the days of the administrations of Gov. Frank Clement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The reception occasioned quips in the hallways of the state capitol about “master lobbyists.”

The Governor’s efforts have apparently already paid off. The master-teacher plan, which would replace the state’s current two-tier teacher-certification system with a four-level plan designed to identify and reward top-level experienced teachers, has been endorsed by the Tennessee School Boards Association, the Tennessee Principals Study Council, the Tennessee Superintendents Study Council, the Memphis Board of Education, and the Tennessee Children’s Services Commission, as well as by the manufacturers’ group.

In addition, Mr. Alexander, a Republican, has won support for the master-teacher plan from the leadership of both chambers of the Democratically controlled Tennessee Legislature, and from other influential Democratic legislators.

One prominent Democratic representative, Stephen Cobb, who supported Governor Alexander’s unsuccessful Democratic opponent in last November’s gubernatorial election, said, “If the Governor is willing to go out on the limb for this one, I’ll sit there with him.”

Legislation containing Mr. Alexander’s master-teacher proposal, as well as nine other less-controversial school-improvement provisions that he is urging, has been submitted by both Democratic and Republican sponsors in both houses of the Tennessee legislature, where they will be referred to the education committees.

Recertification Based on Ability

The Governor’s master-teacher plan is based on the principles that better teachers should be paid higher salaries and that teacher certification--in particular, re-certification--should be based on proven ability rather than on academic credentials.

The plan would allow teachers to assume, over a period of years, progressively more responsibility, increased prestige, and considerably higher pay if they meet its standards.

About 15,000 (35 percent) of the state’s 46,000 teachers would receive higher salaries under the plan by time it is fully implemented in 1986-87. The the estimated cost for the pay supplements is $116.4 million annually.

Governor Alexander has proposed a 1-percent increase in the state’s 4.5-percent sales tax to fund the program. And he has promised to veto any general tax increase that is not used to fund the master-teacher plan.

Incentive-Pay Plan

The master-teacher plan, according to Commissioner of Education Robert L. McElrath, began to evolve in January, 1981, when Governor Alexander told the newly appointed commissioner to develop some kind of incentive-pay plan.

The formulation of the plan began last spring, Mr. McElrath said, and was done by Donald England, the state’s director of teacher certification; Carol Furtwengler, director of research in the state education department; John Folger and Chester E. Finn Jr. of Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Public Policy Studies; and Keel Hunt, an aide to Mr. Alexander.

The group presented the Governor with a general outline of the plan in October.

The committee’s support for the potentially controversial certification structure and pay scale was reinforced, according to Mr. McElrath, when members learned that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which will publish a two-year study on public schooling this fall, was considering a recommendation calling for the adoption of similar merit-pay scales in every state.

Mr. McElrath said the four-tier system is similar to the ranking of university faculty.

Outright Rejection

The National Education Association’s (nea) Tennessee affiliate, which represents over 80 percent of the state’s 46,000 teachers, is vehemently opposed to the master-teacher section of Mr. Alexander’s 10-point school-improvement plan. But, though politically powerful, the union has been almost alone in its outright rejection of the Governor’s proposal.

The leaders of the Tennessee Education Association (tea) have been in daily telephone contact with nea officials in Washington, according to Sharon Robinson, director of professional development for the nea Caught off guard by the Governor’s initiative, the tea in less than two weeks drafted an alternative bill, which will be considered by legislative committees this week.

The proposal calls for an across-the-board pay raise of 10 percent for every teacher in the state with a minimum of three years’ experience and five years of college education. It would retain the current two-tier teacher-licensing procedure, except that a teacher would be granted the second, more permanent license by a proposed professional certification board controlled by teacher members of nea

NEA Spent $200,000

The nea has spent close to $200,000 in the past several months to promote the establishment of similar nea-dominated certification boards in nine other states--Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Kansas, Alabama, and Iowa.

The tea bill, which also calls for more rigorous admission and graduation standards for teacher-training programs, does not mention incentive pay.

Ms. Robinson said that the nea is providing technical assistance, but not direct political support, to the tea’s efforts to defeat the Alexander bill.

Both the nea and the American Federation of Teachers (aft) are paying close attention to the fate of Governor Alexander’s plan.

“Whatever happens in Tennessee will have implications for the rest of the country, so we are watching the situation very carefully,” said Marilyn Rauth, director of educational issues for the aft

The Tennessee Federation of Teachers, which represents a small number of Tennessee teachers, and the Tennessee Federation of Labor have adopted resolutions rejecting Governor Alexander’s master-teacher plan.

The aft, Ms. Rauth said, is not opposed to “exploring” the idea of paying superior, experienced teachers higher salaries. Both unions say their fundamental objection to past incentive-pay plans and to Governor Alexander’s plan is what they describe as the plans’ lack of sufficently defined, objective criteria for deciding why one teacher should be paid more than another.

The Tennessee plan seeks to address this concern.

It calls for the evaluation of teachers who want to be considered for a higher-grade certificate by master teachers from outside their school system using an “observation instrument” based on research on effective schools now being developed by the state’s education department. These master teachers will be appointed by one of three regional certification commissions, which will each have nine members: four master teachers, two master principals, one master supervisor, one person from a higher-education institution in the region, and one lay person.

The regional commissions will in turn report to a 13-member state-certification system appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the state Senate and House. Three members of this body will be “distinguished lay persons” and four will be master teachers.

In addition, there will be two master administrators, one master supervisor, two “distinguished” representatives of higher education, and the commissioner of education.

State Commission

Decisions on an applicant for a master-teacher certificate will be made by the state commission. The regional commissions will make the initial recommendations for certification in the cases of apprentice, professional, and senior teachers.

Other procedures for certifying teachers under the master-teacher law would also include a review of evaluations by supervisors and others in authority, a personal interview, consideration of pupil performance, an examination of inservice and other professional-development activities undertaken by applicants, proficiency tests of the teachers’ knowledge where applicable, and an assessment of additional criteria for the senior and master candidates.

Correspondent Jim O’Hara contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 1983 edition of Education Week as Tennessee Governor Presses Master-Teacher Proposal


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