Master-Teacher Plan Will Need Master Planning

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Like Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, I believe that an incentive structure for the teaching profession is long overdue and much needed. But although I commend the Governor for his efforts to implement a master-teacher plan, I also applaud State Senator Tommy Burks, who had the gumption to "jump off the bandwagon" and cast the decisive vote to defer the plan. Any such proposal, in my view, must be carefully crafted so that, when implemented, it will attract the most capable people; motivate, retain, and reward the best teachers; improve the performance of the less capable; and weed out the incompetent.

The planning of a viable teacher-incentive structure also requires active participation by those affected and strong commitment and support from all parties prior to implementation. In his haste to put the incentives in place, the Governor failed to incorporate these features in the planning process. But he has a second chance; Senator Burks's vote provides the time for a more serious preparatory effort.

At the same time, there are, I think, some elements of the Governor's master-teacher program that should be revised.

The exciting aspect of the master-teacher program is the creation of a career path that establishes several levels or positions of advancement for teachers and ties each position to a pay increase as well as increased professional responsibilities and prestige. The Tennessee plan's four tiers--apprentice teacher, professional teacher, senior teacher, and master teacher--were established with the idea of rewarding teachers on the basis of good performance instead of years of service. But in its present form the plan is unlikely to accomplish this goal.

Under the Alexander plan, a prerequisite for advancement from one level to the next is a fixed length of service in the classroom. A teacher would have to spend three to five years at each level before advancing to the next level. But isn't it conceivable that a superior teacher might not require five or even three years to prove his or her competence in a specific position on the career ladder? If the intent is truly to reward exceptional performance and not years of service, the minimum time requirement for advancement to the next tier should be dropped.

More important, the Tennessee plan, in its current form, also lacks clearly defined standards and procedures for evaluating teachers. And this may be the most difficult problem to resolve.

Before one can fairly judge teacher performance at each level on the career path, there must be a specified set of skills, knowledge, abilities, and attitudes that teachers are expected to demonstrate at each level on the ladder. The plan, as currently outlined, has the Master Teacher Certification Commission making determinations of teacher performance based on vague standards and procedures (such as classroom observation by master teachers from other school systems, review of supervisors' evaluations, interviews with the candidate, and so on). This is an inappropriate approach to teacher assessment.

Normally, one decides the qualities, skills, knowledge, and other factors that are to be assessed and then determines the procedures that might best measure such attributes. What will be looked for in classroom observations? Will observers be trained to look for a standardized set of teacher behaviors and will the observations be performed in a fashion that will provide an adequate sample of a teacher's typical classroom performance? What will supervisors' assessments include--standard and clearly specified teacher competencies that can be applied fairly across the state? What are interviews supposed to assess? What are the distinct skills to be assessed at each career level?

Until these specifics are taken seriously and standards and assessment procedures are accepted by the major groups involved, only a rocky and unproductive implementation effort can result. As we have learned from past experiences with merit-pay plans that have failed, clear specification of teacher competencies, objectively measured and well understood and supported by teachers and administrators, is essential for a successful incentive structure, though it doesn't alone guarantee success.

It is also unclear whether the monetary rewards offered for outstanding teacher performance under the Alexander plan are sufficient to keep the best and the brightest individuals in the profession (assuming they enter it in the first place). Consider a superior beginning teacher. It will take this teacher between three and five years to advance to the professional-teacher level and to receive an increase in salary of $1,000 annually. After another three to five years, he or she can advance again. Only then, after a minimum of six years, would a teacher be eligible for the considerably higher salaries offered under the plan.

The question is, would teachers wait, would they remain in the profession for six to 10 years, earning an extra thousand dollars per year after a third year, in the hope of becoming a senior or master teacher? We are talking about the best and the brightest, remember. I would not stay; I would look for a job with greater monetary rewards. While much has been written about intrinsic motivation and its strength as a reward, teachers are like everyone else making a living: Many have families to support. One thousand extra dollars a year does not go very far.

Another concern is that senior and master teachers would, according to the plan, receive larger salaries for assuming administrative functions and for working longer days and more days per year. Accordingly, the plan is better described as a differential-pay plan for differential-staffing assignments. Why would these additional duties serve as an incentive to a superior teacher? If such a teacher could perform administrative functions in a superior fashion, why wouldn't he or she obtain an administrative position that would carry a higher salary and more prestige?

Moreover, the extra duties suggested for senior and master teachers (such as training, evaluation, and supervision of apprentice teachers; curriculum development; coordination of inservice teacher training) are normally administrative functions now carried out in most school districts by people with administrative positions. Are senior and master teachers to replace these school-district positions? Undoubtedly, much of the success of the Tennessee plan depends on how individual districts work out such arrangements and conflicts with central-office administrative functions.

In addition, the plan gives no attention to training for teachers. Assuming that adequate evaluation procedures are established to assess agreed-upon competencies at each level, what happens to teachers who do not make the grade, so to speak? Does Tennessee plan to improve the performance of all teachers? Specifically at the higher levels (senior and master teacher), teachers are required to perform different tasks (such as inservice training) for which they may not be prepared. I would suggest that a workable teacher-improvement plan must include the training needed to ensure that teachers acquire or improve the skills that are expected for outstanding performance at each level.

Finally, although the plan prescribes basic guidelines, individual school districts must do some planning of their own. For example, districts must make decisions about the additional functions that senior and master teachers will perform to contribute to the overall quality of local instruction. They must be concerned with the training required to enable their teachers to assume added responsibilities. Inservice-training programs may need alterations. And districts must also consider how to evaluate the performance of teachers who have assumed these added functions. Local school boards, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members will want to participate in such planning activities. Perhaps a more realistic time frame would take into consideration this need for planning.

The problems I have described are not necessarily insurmountable. But if they do not receive study and consideration in the second stage of planning, I fear this proposal to infuse these exciting and long-overdue incentives into the teaching profession will be lost. Many supporters of the concept of a teacher-incentive structure will continue to watch the progress of Tennessee's master-teacher proposal as either a failed lesson from which to learn or a plan to emulate.

Vol. 02, Issue 35, Page 18

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