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Mediocre Efforts and Merit Pay

July 29, 1991



The opinion-page column "Better Teaching and the Merit Pay 'Myth July 12, exposes the inherent flaw in any so-called merit pay system. Employers and managers should expect the best from all employees. The relationship of tasks that characterizes most employment situations means that everyone's contribution is required to achieve good results.The author's comments concern teaching, but they have equal relevance to the federal government's Civil Service Reform Act, which introduced merit pay to the federal bureaucracy. For more than 10 years, federal managers have shoveled "merit bonuses" to employees whose net efforts have put almost every federal program in distress. We have, for example, a Food and Drug Administration unable to inspect the food that reaches American tables; a financial bureaucracy that has enabled the savings-and-loan crisi s now to be followed by a banking crisis; a Transportation Department that has allowed the deterioration of the highway system, overcrowded airports and countless near misses in the air, and the elimination of intercity bus service; and a health-care system that omits many from receiving basic medical attention. Obviously, the failure of federal programs is not just the fault of civil servants, but their mediocre efforts hardly deserve merit bonuses. The author suggests that everyone should simply do his best. Put an old fashioned way, let's have an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. Phillip H. Miller, Annandale, Va.

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The author has written profoundly and truly about the motives and rewards of teaching. I agree that merit pay for a few teachers is not only inappropriate, but could be harmful. Since there is no objective scale for measuring excellent teaching, administrators who decide who has earned merit pay could easily be fooled by window dressing. Whether or not the decision is fair, the resulting resentment and cynicism on the part of other staff members could seriously threaten harmony and lower morale. From my experience as a teacher, I suggest these ways of improving the quality of teaching in schools: lighter teacher loads, administrative firmness in handling incorrigible students, help on paperwork, and less patrol duty. There are also many small ways of making a teacher feel wanted and appreciated. They, too, will encourage success in a difficult job. Jean Trigg, Henderson, Ky.

Picking on Yugoslavians I'm a fan of Jeff Danziger, but he crosses a line with his cartoon on the disintegrating Yugo car, July 9, which is equivalent to ethnic stereotyping. The cheap slur comes at a time of agony for Yugoslavians. It would be better to bite US congressmen and federal executives than the already bloodied victims of overseas civil strife. Philip Dacey, Lynd, Minn.

El Salvador lacks democratic substance Regarding the opinion-page column "El Salvador's Cristiani Deserves Praise - and Backing," July 5: The author conveniently overlooks the fact not only that the country's military has murdered most of the 75,000 Salvadorans killed since 1980, but that El Salvador today is a pseudo-democracy with some of the forms but hardly any of the substance of a Western-style democracy. For example, last March's legislative elections were saturated with tainted procedures. The armed forces, closely aligned with the right-wing ruling ARENA party, broke the 100-meter free-zone law around electoral polling places. Equally illegal, ARENA posted many of its supporters at voting booths, handing out food and money to bribe voters. The Jesuit University of Central America estimates that 100,000 to 150,000 people were unable to vote because of electoral tampering, such as stalling the arrival of ballots in areas known to be anti-Cristiani. The claim that reforms have brought significant economic growth is valid only from the perspective of the nation's traditional ruling families. Government figures indicate that 85 percent of Salvadorans presently are living at or below the poverty level. Meanwhile, the US is building a 26-acre, $70 million embassy complex in San Salvador, unprecedented for a tiny nation with only minor investments by US nationals. In contrast, 60 percent of "housing" in the capital is made of cardboard, plastic, and disc arded metal sheeting. No matter how you juggle language, one cannot disguise the maintenance of the status quo by presenting it as reform, or repression as liberty. Marc Siegel, Washington, Council on Hemispheric Affairs