Merit Pay for Teachers

Bush and Gore partisans haven't been the only ones taking to the streets in protest recently. A few days ago public school teachers were waving placards on New York City streets. A few weeks before, Philadelphia teachers went on strike. The teachers in Los Angeles warn they may do the same come February.

Their motives are less political than personal - job security and pay raises as contracts come due. But this fall's teacher unrest has a larger context than periodic contract battles. It comes at a time when the work done by teachers is under intense scrutiny - from state education officials, from parents, and yes, from politicians.

Everyone waving the reform banner wants to attract better teachers, reward those who are already doing a good job, and try to weed out those who aren't. Those steps are far from easy in a system where teacher pay and tenure are largely set through negotiations with unions that want to protect teachers from the whims of administrators. One idea being tested in a number of places is to use performance - or merit - pay for teachers, or even whole sets of teachers.

One of the most promising experiments is under way in Cincinnati, where a merit-pay plan was devised with the help of teacher-union members. One value of such an approach is that it puts teaching more on par with other professions where performance determines reward. If the highest pay goes only to those with 20 or 30 years of experience, what's the incentive for promising young prospects to try teaching?

Another element of professionalism is a work environment that encourages interaction between old hands and new ones. Experienced lawyers mentor younger associates, for instance. But it can be harder to form those kinds of relationships in education, where teachers' classrooms are their castles. Many schools are experimenting with mentoring or coaching programs in order to build in professional collaboration.

As the country reshapes its educational system, all kinds of ideas will feed into that process - and differing views must be heard. But what should emerge, eventually, are schools that allow both teachers and students greater freedom to advance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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