How to sweeten merit pay by making it voluntary

Why do most teachers oppose merit pay? And this includes the mommoth NEA (National Education Association), with more than 1 million classroom teachers in its membership.

The idea behind merit pay is a simple one with complex overtones. School administrators, using as objective and non-biased a method as possible, would reward those teachers who had done, in a given school year, an exceptional job.

Parents, taxpayers, school board members, and administrators argue that such a program would do much to make all teachers conscious of the quality of their work, and would help to retain and improve standards in the classroom.

It's not difficult to understand why teachers would be against merit-pay programs. For them, the possibilities for abuse are too great to balance out the rewards. Whenever merit pay is suggested, teachers, individually and collectively, point out the near-impossibility of a good-quality measuring device for teaching which would be fair to all.

If merit is tied to pupil performance, then differences in pupils -- and not the quality of the teaching -- would be the key to "success." And if merit is tied to administrative reviews, the problem of toadyism would be paramount.

If merit-pay programs reflected "popularity" with pupils, or in any way reflected their assessment of their teachers, this would produce not meritorious teaching, but a playing up to students, perhaps causing the opposite effect from the one desired.

Yet, the notion that some way should be found to reward those whose scholarships and dedication to teaching are exceptional, and not in any way dependent on pupil popularity or "closeness" to a supervisor, is on the agenda of most school boards across the United States.

We hear of "teacher burn-out," where supposedly a strong and capable teacher, frustrated by having to do too much besides actual teaching in a hostile environment, leaves.We hear of strong teachers in the scientific areas finally succumbing to the need for a better financial position (ironically often to pay for college-age children' further education) and leaving to go to better-salaried positions in industry.

And we hear constantly of the "best" teacher in a given school leaving the classroom for the front office -- to enjoy a better salary and an improved position in the community.

These are a few of the corners that keep merit pay as an agenda item. Yet, few school districts seem to be able to overcome unionlike teacher resistance. Instead, teacher groups argue for rewards for combined time spent as students (workshops, summer study, night courses, graduate programs, educational travel, etc.) And for years spent in the classroom. And they generally refuse to agree to any attempt to qualify or quantify one teacher's contribution over that of another.

How much longer can teachers refuse to be screened for their ability to teach? How much longer will the public pay the same for an academically weak teacher as for a dedicated scholar?

Not much longer.

It would behoove teachers, individually and collectively, to design merit-pay programs, and ones as bias-proof as possible.

Why not make the program voluntary -- each teacher in a given school system who wishes to considered for a merit-pay bonus in a given school year must make application for it by the close of the first full week of classes.

Why not make the review process one in which a teacher, contracting with an appropriate administrator, sets up criteria for assessing whether that teacher, at the close of the school year, does or does not deserve a merit-pay bonus?

And let the school board set the bonus at a generous amount -- not tied in any way to the applicant's salary. This would give the same incentive to the first-year teacher as to the veteran. For the 1980-81 school year, that might be a bonus of $5,000.

And let the teacher who wins a merit bonus in 1980-81 be eligible to apply again in 1981-82, and so on year after year.

School boards could initiate a recognition program for the teachers who earn merit pay; local radio and TV stations might regularly profile these exceptional teachers, sharing with the full community the conditions of the contract worked out jointly by teacher and administrators.

How to treat teachers who have won merit-pay bonuses might follow the script used to honor winning coaches for varsity high school sports.

And by requiring the teachers themselves initiate the merit bonus contract, and that they agree to the measures to assess whether any bonus has been earned, many of the present objections against merit-pay plans might be avoided.

But what should a school district do if not one teacher asks to contract for a merit bonus?

Just this: Hold the awards announcements as planned; notify all local news media; discuss the nowwinners at public meetings; show how the budget item for merit bonuses has not been touched.

And double the awards for the coming year.

On the other hand, suppose that some 20 percent of the teaching staff chooses to participate; and further suppose that all meet the terms of their contracts. This could cost a school district as much as a 10 percent increase of the basic budget. But would it not be worth it?

The issue of productivity in US public schools is a vital one, coast to coast. It may be quite true that school administrators are the ones who stand in the way of progress and are less than sensitive to the needs of classroom teachers. It's possible that teachers, eager to contract for the earning of an extra several thousand dollars, will require the necessary support services, and the school district with merit pay bonuses will get not only more dedicated teaching but more intelligent administrating.

Taxpayers interested in including merit-pay programs in their school districts may be surprised to discover that previous negotiations have ruled out the introduction, even on a voluntary basis, of any such plans in their school district, and that it will take a renegotiation of teachers' basic contracts to make such a program possible.

State legislatures could help by passing a law that made it illegal for any contract to prohibit merit programs. It would not, of course, be wise for the state to devise a merit-pay program to cover all its local school districts, as circumstances vary so dramatically from one community to another.

If actions by teachers' groups in the past are any indication for the present , there will be organized opposition to any law supporting or providing for merit pay for publicly paid teachers. Hence, it will probably be necessary for school board associations and citizens' groups to get together to lobby specifically for a merit-pay law.

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