Why the schools don't want merit pay for teachers

By , Terry Herndon was executive director of the National Education Association from 1973 to 1983. He is the author of the new book, ''We, the Teachers.''

Each generation of teachers and school administrators has had to deal with the public's fascination with merit pay for teachers. This time the response will be more difficult because it is America's most powerful citizen who is promoting the idea.

President Reagan has unleashed an impressive and unprecedented public relations campaign for merit pay as his only significant response to the National Commission for Excellence in Education. To judge from his determined evangelism, he apparently believes merit pay to be a sine qua non for school improvement.

To the extent that this belief becomes popular, merit pay is no longer an isolated issue but rather an issue that cannot be separated from the universal desire to improve the public schools. As a result, the idea's reappearance in 1983 is not just our turn to reply to an old question but a serious and difficult dilemma for the school establishment.

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Many citizens almost instinctively support the idea of performance-based compensation; it is part of their day-to-day experience in the workplace. Such citizens, however, rarely ask whether the system as they see it working in their own institutions is similarly applicable to the purposes of schools and schooling. Even if they do, they're inclined to say, ''Some teachers are better than others, and better teachers should get more pay.''

The force of this public sentiment is strong enough to create a desire among school people to simply accommodate and get on with other matters. Accommodation would be easy, popular, and efficient. Moreover, it would probably maximize short-term support for increases in school spending.

On the other hand, members of the education establishment know from experience that merit pay will not solve any of the very serious problems confronting the public schools, and will, in fact, only create more problems. They also know that if they make the political deal, they and not the President will be accountable both for the problems still unsolved and the new problems as well. As much as they would like to accommodate, they find the risks unacceptable.

Specifically, why do school people feel merit pay won't work?

1. Merit pay systems can institutionalize the acceptability of mediocrity and inferiority. The ideal objective for a school system is to have an excellent teacher in every classroom. The only way to do this is to enact high standards for employment and performance, and to provide the administration and supervision necessary to enforce these standards. Most merit pay systems presuppose that most teachers will not meet the high performance standards.

2. Merit pay systems can be driven more by political than professional considerations. Nepotism, racism, sexism, chauvinism, and cronyism have all been powerful forces in the operation of local government. If the defenses against these abuses are breached, then we should expect to see pay increments doled out for political merit as often as professional merit.

3. Merit pay systems can complicate performance problems among teachers. The salaries of public servants are a matter of public record. As a result, under merit pay the segregation of teachers into two categories, meritorious and not meritorious, becomes a matter of public record. The consequences are horrendous. Teen-agers can be merciless in the use of this information, and parents invariably insist that their children be put in classes taught by the teachers rated superior. The inevitable embarrassment, tension, and administrative headaches thus generated have been major factors in the failure of merit pay plans almost everywhere they've been introduced.

4. Merit pay plans can stifle extra effort. Excellence in teaching is often related to personal, social, and spiritual consideration as well as pedagogical. Many teachers involve themselves with students (including students not assigned to them) in a variety of personal and social ways that make major differences in lives but are totally divorced from any job description usable for merit pay administration. The very existence of a merit pay plan devalues these noncompensable activities.

5. Merit pay plans can require arbitrary comparisons and contrasts of functions. A reasonable merit pay plan will set objective criteria for each teaching function and compensate each teacher who fulfills the criteria. The trouble is, this is virtually impossible to achieve. The kindergarten teacher, the K-6 music teacher, the 12th-grade teacher of advanced placement calculus, and the 8th-grade teacher of industrial arts are competing with one another for one of a limited number of merit increments. It's obviously an unfair competition in that each assignment is relatively unique.

The real problems of the public schools are immune to remedy through merit pay plans, a point implicit in the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The commission, for example, finds that:

* Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose.

* Expenditures for textbooks and other instructional material have declined by 50 percent over the past 17 years.

* Compared to other nations, American students spend much less time on schoolwork.

* Not enough of the academically able students are being attracted to teaching.

* Teacher-preparation progams need substantial improvements.

* The professional working life of teachers is, on the whole, unacceptable.

* Given the freedom to choose half or more of their education, many students opt for less demanding personal service courses, such as bachelor living.

Merit pay simply does not address these problems. If the public is led to believe that it will, then with merit pay comes expectation of a more productive school. Soon thereafter the piper will be paid. The politicians will have passed on and the educators will pay once again.

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