Merit system fosters `learning atmosphere'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

First-graders starting school this year at North Miami Elementary will learn how to spell and add not only from their classroom teachers, but from the school cafeteria workers, office typists, and the assistant principal as well. For the third year, this school will participate in a unique, county-wide ``merit school plan'' designed to improve the learning atmosphere in schools by rearranging the traditional relationship between school labor and management.

The Quality Instruction Incentives Program (QUIIP) is the first of its kind to be collectively bargained by a teacher union -- the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) -- with a local school board. And experts note that it's an example of an education reform that is working at a time when many reforms are still in the talking stage.

Most current merit plans in public schools around the country reward individual teachers (usually monetarily) for doing good work. Under the Miami plan, however, entire schools compete with one another to improve student performance. In ``winning'' schools, every employee from the principal to the custodian receives extra pay. But what is more important than pay, say those involved, is the change that occurs in merit schools as teachers, principals, and other staff members break through old barriers or antagonisms that have often separated them and begin to work closely together toward a common goal of better learning.

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``Our morale has improved 100 percent,'' says North Miami principal Patricia Parham, noting that the presence or absence of good morale and spirit can make or break a school. ``We've had a lot of growth in the last two years,'' she adds, ``not just in student test scores, but in the better attitudes, feelings, and dedication of the staff.'' Keith Phillips, a teacher at nearby Charles R. Drew Elementary, is gratified that since the merit plan started at his school, ``There has been more of a family feeling at the school -- among teachers and staff.''

The students' families are also seen as a vital part of the success of a merit school. That's why, last year, the North Miami office staff members called each parent several times during the year to talk about students' homework and other matters -- a situation that prompted assistant principal George Brown to comment, ``I've never been in a school where nonintructional personel take their own time to help kids.'' Having all the adults that children come in contact with in a school act interested in education does a lot to help the general ``feel'' of a school, he says. But the most important change, say officials, is the enhanced role of teachers.

The idea of sharing more responsibility with teachers was daunting at first. But Ms. Parham and fellow principal Robert Morely at Drew both found that giving teachers more leeway paid off. ``Our teachers have more confidence in themselves,'' says Parham, ``they are looking for new, creative ways to teach. And I'm not even telling them to.'' Assistant Dade County school super intendant Paul Bell says ``the most positive outcome'' of the merit school plan is ``the residue of confidence that exists as faculty and principals meet and plan for educational improvement.'' Further, test scores over the past two years show that such planning is bearing fruit, particularly in the earlier grades, where basic levels of math, writing, and reading have improved across the board -- in some schools by as much as 10 percent.

One unexpected benefit of the merit school program thus far is that very few teachers, even in inner-city or low-income neighborhood schools such as Drew and North Miami, have requested transfers. This is a promising sign, say officials, since teacher dissatisfaction, especially in the growing number of overcrowded inner-city schools, is high. ``I was teaching in Georgia for three years before coming here,'' said a fourth-grade teacher at North Miami who moved here because there was ``no incentive in the Georgia system, no opportunity to work with fellow teachers.'' As Albert Shanker, president of the AFT puts it, ``One of the things you hear from teachers who quit in disgust is that `I'm locked in a room all day with no chance to talk with other people.' ''

In the Miami merit system, schools must focus on three distinct areas of improvement in order to qualify for top merit awards: the mandated Florida skills requirements, which include the basics such as math and English; attendance or dropout prevention; and a special focus area designed by teachers and the principal. (At Drew, the special area is ``computer literacy''; at North Miami it is ``listening skills.'') To succeed in all three areas is a stiff demand, and teachers at both schools meet daily to discuss progress and new ideas. ``Teachers and staff don't go home at 3:30 around here,'' says Parham. ``People stay. But what's amazing is that they stay because they want to.''

Some teachers said the drawback of a merit school is that, in the words of one, ``competitive teachers sometimes feel that others aren't doing their part.'' If the merit school idea is taken far enough, say defenders, then poor or weak teachers would be more easily spotted and dealt with. For those districts wanting to start merit schools of their own, says Mr. Bell, the most important item to work on is ``stretching -- developing trust between labor and management.''

Thus far, about 220 of the 250 Miami public schools have volunteered to participate in QUIIP. Of these, only about 60 actually ``win'' merit compensation. The QUIIP concept, as well as its funding base, originated in the Florida legislature in 1983. It has made inroads in various state districts, though its quick success in Miami is attributable, say teachers, to the fact that many in their ranks were already used to ``thinking for themselves'' as a result of collective bargaining action taken in the late 1970s to form ``faculty councils'' within schools -- teachers who help with the decision-making process within schools.

Pat Tornillo, AFT Executive Vice President in Miami, who bargained both the faculty councils and QUIIP, says the merit school idea is ``an ongoing process,'' that will extend the idea of teacher professionalism and make teaching more attractive. In the same vein, Mr. Shanker suggests that programs like QUIIP counteract the notion of teachers as ``hired hands who have to be inspected and checklisted.''

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