The nation’s largest teachers’ union momentarily considered cracking open the door to performance-based pay last week, and then slammed it shut.
By a narrow voice vote, delegates to the National Education Association’s annual meeting here rejected a resolution that included a set of conditions under which the organization would accept pay plans based on more than a teacher’s education and length of service.
Instead, the gathering of more than 9,000 union representatives strengthened the NEA’s stance against alternative pay policies by amending its long-standing opposition to merit pay with a statement also rebuffing “any other system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance.” Also added was language opposing differential pay for teachers in shortage areas such as mathematics and science.
Technically, the national organization’s opposition does not prohibit NEA affiliates from experimenting on their own with performance-based pay. But it also, many observers believe, sends a message that the influential, 2.5 million-member union is unwilling to budge on what a growing number of policymakers consider a crucial element of school improvement.
“It was a colossal wasted opportunity,” Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant and teachers’ union watcher, said of the vote. “And it plays right into the criticism of those who say the NEA wants to protect an indefensible status quo.”
Slippery Slope Feared
The defeat of the policy change was particularly striking given how conservatively it was worded.
The proposed resolution—which the NEA’s board of directors had approved in May— stipulated that any new pay plan be above and beyond the traditional salary schedule, that teachers be involved in its design, and that it “not diminish the status of those who do not receive the additional compensation or in any other way suggest that they are not qualified for the positions that they hold.”
And while it said that performance-based pay systems should be “clearly stated and subject to objective measurement,” the defeated resolution would have resisted any use of student test scores to determine salaries, a concept the NEA’s affiliate in Denver is experimenting with.
The resolution also would have reaffirmed a strong position against merit pay, which it defined as a system based on “subjective evaluation.”
Even with those caveats, however, many delegates feared the changes would set them on a slippery slope toward initiatives for compensating teachers based on factors outside their control. Foes warned of the possibility that teachers’ pay could one day depend on how often their students were absent or how often they had to be disciplined.
Another major concern was that any perceived lessening of the NEA’s opposition to alternative- pay policies would add momentum to the national push for performance-based compensation. Affiliates opposed to such plans also worried that they might be forced to accept them.
“Do we want to send the message to our state legislators and boards of education that we are willing to negotiate, or worse, initiate pay for performance?” Robin C. Holcombe, a delegate from Passaic, N.J., asked the union’s Representative Assembly. “I do not wish to be evaluated or paid on my students’ achievement, but on the fact that I do my job well each and every day to the best of my ability.”
Such arguments won out over pleas from supporters like the president of the Vermont-NEA, Angelo Dorta, who urged the delegates to “take action based on our highest hopes, not our fears.”
By remaining inflexible on the issue of performance-based pay, he and others argued, the NEA was hurting those affiliates who needed guidance in seeking to adopt new compensation plans.
“This is about whether or not we can trust our locals to make the best decisions they can for their membership,” said John Cyr, the president of NEA-Alaska. “It is not up to this body to decide what the members in Alaska want to do around compensation.”
Delegates did pass a measure that will allow the NEA to assist affiliates that have such plans imposed on them by legislators or district negotiators. They also voted to support bonuses for teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Guilt by Association?
After the vote, NEA President Bob Chase—who supported the more flexible stance on performance pay—said the action reflected teachers’ frustration with what they see as unfair accountability measures and the inappropriate implementation of state standards and high-stakes tests for students.
“They’re run down, they’re getting burned out, they’re saying enough is enough,” he said. “They’re saying all of this stuff is being imposed on us, and we have to deal with enough as it is.”
Some delegates said they hoped the opposition would not be read as a signal that the NEA is backing away from the increased advocacy for school improvement that Mr. Chase has labeled “a new unionism.”
“The work we’ve done to promote high standards for students and educators is untouched by this,” Mr. Dorta of Vermont said. “This was plainly a difficult discussion around compensation, but the NEA reform agenda, the teacher-quality agenda, and the school improvement agenda all stand on their own foundation.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as NEA Delegates Take Hard Line Against Pay for Performance