Merit system fosters `learning atmosphere'
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
``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.