Tennessee Teachers UnconvincedOf Career Ladder's Benefits

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"Every new career-ladder teacher is ahead of where he or she was a year ago--with more pay, improved professional skills, and increased respect."

So says Lamar Alexander, who in early 1983 became the first governor to propose a statewide merit-pay plan for teachers, and then pushed it through the legislature a year later.

But Tennessee teachers, whose union has fought the plan from the day it was announced, apparently remain unconvinced.

Although more than 90 percent of the eligible teachers signed up for the program in its first year, three separate surveys indicate that the career ladder has stirred resentment, confusion, and a sense of injustice among them, in part, researchers say, because the program was poorly planned and tested, and then rushed into place.

Another reason for teacher dissatisfaction is that only about one-third of those who applied for the upper rungs of the ladder last year were successful.

Nelson Andrews, the chairman of Tennessee's newly reconstituted state board, still thinks the program can work as a way of rewarding teachers, but he doubts that it will ever succeed in attracting large numbers of bright new people to the profession.

"If we're dependent on that to get us out of the dark ages, forget it," he says.

Lots of Unrest

No one expected Tennessee's career ladder to run smoothly during its the first year, and it may be too soon to tell if it ever will.

"Ultimately, the plan will succeed or fail on whether we get an evaluation system that teachers have confidence in and that genuinely works," says Jack Murrah, vice president of the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga, which funds a number of school-improvement projects.

It is the evaluation system that has most antagonized the teachers' union. Teachers are evaluated in a number of areas, including student progress and classroom management. The evaluation involves seven separate components, such as classroom observation, development of a professional portfolio, and tests.

"I think it's going to take several years before you get a consensus among teachers that this is a good thing," Mr. Andrews adds. "There's a lot of unrest out there. We just have to accept that."

"Every time you go out and talk to people you find that morale really has declined," says Janice Handler, who conducted one of the surveys of teachers under a 20-month U.S. Education Department grant. "I see nothing on the horizon that makes me think it's going to turn around."

"The problem with these plans is that they're being imposed on an occupational system in which people have not had evaluations as a systematic experience," comments Willis Hawley, dean of the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Inevitably, there are going to be significant transitional difficulties."

"Seventy percent of the people think they're in the top one-third of the profession," he adds. "One problem with an evaluation system is that it tells you you're not."

Mr. Hawley concedes that "there have been problems of implementation," but he says that those problems are "not so dramatic as to call into question the policy itself."

But according to Ms. Handler, "teachers have been asked to keep forgiving errors that could have been avoided with a simpler system and one that was more well thought out."

"I could find 10 things wrong with it," counters Mr. Hawley, "but as a starting point it's a pretty sensible plan."

He acknowledeges, however, that "the battle is still being fought over whether we should have it or not."

Flawed Evaluation System

Susan Rosenholtz, professor of education at the University of Illinois, attributes teachers' complaints about the career ladder to fundamental problems with the method of evaluation.

Ms. Rosenholtz, who served as a consultant to the interim committee that drafted the evaluation criteria, but quit in a dispute with Commissioner of Education Robert McElrath, charges that the evaluation system diverges from effective- schools research, placing undue emphasis on differentiating among teachers rather than on helping them improve.

"I've heard some teachers say that the career ladder made them a better teacher," says Mr. Andrews, who has spent much of his time as board chairman discussing the program with teachers. "But about 90 percent of them said it didn't."

Instead, despite a popular staff-development component, the program has proved "divisive" among teachers and has had "poor and unintended effects," says Ms. Rosen4holtz, who surveyed attitudes about the career ladder as part of a National Institute of Education grant to study effective elementary schools.

She points out that although effective-schools research shows that the best schools are ones in which teachers freely share ideas, the career ladder discourages that practice, as teachers seek to ensure that no one else gets the credit for their ideas.

"It's divisive," she asserts. "That kind of evaluation system is divisive and deleterious to the collaboration that teachers formerly enjoyed."

Can Be 'Faked'

According to both Ms. Rosenholtz and Ms. Handler, teachers have objected to the evaluation system because it takes too much of their time and because they sense that other teachers can "fake it" and move ahead of them on the ladder.

"One of the major problems that is occurring is that teachers are challenging the fairness of the evaluation system," Ms. Rosenholtz says.

"The questions we kept getting were, 'Can this be done fairly? Are these indicators credible?"' Ms. Handler notes.

In addition, "there's a general sense everywhere that working hard on the tests took time away from classroom instruction and the kids," according to Ms. Handler.

"Teachers had to choose between devoting themselves to their students or developing their portfolios," Ms. Rosenholtz says, with the result that many of the best teachers opted not to apply for the top rungs of the ladder.

Seeing other, less qualified teachers advance ahead of them, some teachers may have resorted to "distributive justice," she says. "Most typically, teachers may alter their own contribution to the school downward. We're seeing that happen wherever career ladders are put into place and Tennessee is no exception."

The department of education and the state board have all but acknowledged that the evaluation system is flawed, changing it this year to accommodate teachers' complaints.

Master-Teacher Proposal

The career ladder evolved from Governor Alexander's 1983 "master teacher" proposal, which he sold to the public as a cure to the ills of the Tennessee school system.

"It is the single most important part of the most important program I will ever recommend as Governor of Tennessee," he said at the time.

The Governor's proposal would have created four categories of teachers, but would have restricted the number of teachers who could reach the top ranks--senior and master teacher--to 25 percent and 15 percent of the teaching force, respectively.

The legislature lifted the restrictions, added a fifth category, and changed the name of the program to "the career ladder," generally making it less threatening to teachers.

The Tennessee Education Association, the state's nea affiliate, opposed the program from the start, claiming that the Governor had shut them out of the planning process. The Governor denies the accusation.

Once the legislature had approved the program, an interim commission composed primarily of lay people established evaluation criteria, based on the recommendations of the state department of education.

The commission approved the contentious seven-part evaluation system to assess teachers in five domains, including planning, instruction, evaluation of student progress, classroom management, and professional leadership.

But earlier this year, the commission dropped the proposed teacher interview from the evaluation process, and gave less weight to the professional portfolio, because it found that the tea was distributing to teachers the confidential rating system being used by the evaluators.

Later, the commission reinstated the interview and made the rating system public.

Then, on Aug. 30, the state board approved sweeping changes in the evaluation system, including a revision of the rating scales.

It also increased the number of unannounced classroom observations from one to four and combined the interviews and the portfolio into "dialogue sessions," with the portfolio limited to an assessment of a teacher's professional growth and leadership.

Fast-Track Options

To move teachers into the program, the state offered them five "fast track" options in 1984-85 that allowed them to qualify for level one on the ladder without having to go through a complete evaluation. Options included 40 hours of inservice training and passing scores on standardized tests, such as the National Teacher Examination.

Certified teachers were under no compulsion to join the program. But by joining the first year, they could safely reach level one without having to undergo an evaluation and could collect an annual $1,000 bonus for five years.

More than 39,000 teachers and administrators applied for the program, according to the state department of education, including some 3,400 teachers who applied for the top levels on the ladder--levels two and three.

More than 31,077 teachers were approved for level one, but only 1,090 were approved for levels two and three--458 for level two, and 632 for level three. Those who 4reached levels two and three constitute less than 3 percent of all the teachers in the state.

Some 600 teachers who applied for the upper levels fell short in one domain, and the state is retesting them. Another 7,000 teachers have applied for levels two and three this year.

Can It Work?

Tom Cannon, president of the tea, says the low success rate of those applying for the upper levels of the career ladder proves that the program cannot work.

"Not too many people are going to stay in a profession 13 years with a one-in-three chance of getting a raise," he says.

But Mr. Andrews, the state-board chairman, argues that the career ladder was never intended to do anything other than "pay a small percentage of people" a better salary.

"Career ladder two and three, what all the hoo-hah is over, was never intended to do anything but reward outstanding teachers," he says. "It's a goal out there at the end of the rainbow."

"The career ladder is a part of the process of building a good school system, but a relatively small part," he adds. "It's not going to be the thing that causes better people to go into teaching."

Mr. Hawley, however, believes that the problem with the plan is that if it does draw good people into the profession, they will eventually "bump up" against others already on the top rungs of the ladder, due to limits on the funding committed to the program.

"If it works, you'll have a reasonably good group of new teachers, only a few of whom can reach the top rungs," he says.

Both Mr. Hawley and Mr. Andrews agree, however, that it is in the state's interest to make the program work. "We've got to make it work," Mr. Andrews says. "If not, there may be no other step like it for a long time."

Vol. 05, Issue 09

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