When it comes to education reform, some Republicans and Democrats don't disagree much. President Bush and Democratic challengers Paul E. Tsongas and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton want to inject such free-market notions as competition into the nation's schools. One pet idea all three embrace: "merit pay," a scheme that bases teachers' salaries on classroom performance.
To skeptics, the politicians' positions are cause for concern. They say merit pay is one idea from the real world that flunks in academia. Its funding often is uncertain. It has few advocates beyond the teachers who receive the bonuses. And merit pay is foreign to the egalitarian teaching culture. "It engenders resentment," says an American Federation of Teachers spokesman.
The Presidential contenders need look no further than Washington neighbor Fairfax County, Va., to see why incentive-pay schemes are no panacea. County school officials there had to take drastic action when they ran into problems with their $1.2 billion budget. On Feb. 18, the board suspended merit payments due 2,100 of the system's 9,000 teachers rather than lay off 374 of them.
MIXED RESULTS. Other school districts are taking a critical look at merit-pay programs, too. When North Carolina's budget woes forced it to make tough choices in 1991, it slashed merit pay. And despite repeated requests by state education officials in Ohio, the legislature has never ponied up cash for a full-fledged program there. "The problem has always been funding . . . and evaluation systems for merit pay," says Ohio Assistant Superintendent Robert Moore.
Merit-pay advocates say that improving the teaching corps is an important first step to pulling the country's schools out of their tailspin. Yet in states such as Tennessee and Utah, which have longstanding merit-pay programs, the results are, at best, mixed. Tennessee officials don't link any rise in student test scores to merit pay. In Utah, Ann W. Hart, an associate dean in the University of Utah's graduate school of education, says instruction and curriculum have improved, but "there's no evidence that merit pay has an impact on kids."
There's another problem, too. Merit pay in Utah, as it often is elsewhere, is part of a "career ladder" program that rewards teachers for self-improvement, not improved student performance. But the $41 million program may not encourage teachers to brush up their skills. "Teachers are not counting on it because it's a special appropriation every year," Hart says.
CULTURE CLASH. In other states, there are complaints about how merit pay is awarded. A North Carolina pilot project had outsiders sit in on classes three times a year to review teachers. W. Glenn Keever, a spokesman for the state's Public Instruction Dept., says teachers complained that reviews were subjective and bad teachers just cleaned up their act during the evaluation.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, is the conflict between merit pay and the teaching culture, which often depends on teamwork. By producing a less egalitarian pay scale, merit raises can deeply divide teaching staffs, as happened in Fairfax County. "We were told from the start to keep a low profile to minimize resentment," says Fairfax County social studies teacher Tina Yalen.
To get around merit pay's problems, some states are mpting to reward improved performance for whole schools with lump sums that can be used for nearly any purpose.
The bottom line? If the Presidential candidates really want to help cure the nation's ailing schools, they may have to do a little more homework.
MERIT PAY: BARELY MAKING THE GRADE ARIZONA In 1985, the state put $100,000 into its program. Current funding is $21.1 million MISSOURI Despite a state financial crunch, the state's career-ladder program funding will reach almost $19 million this year, up from $2.6 million in 1986 NORTH CAROLINA The state launched a career-ladder system in 1984 with $12 million. That was a bust. Now, it puts $38 million into a bonus pool OHIO In 1990, the state put $2 million into a one-year pilot program, then ended it because of a budget crunch TENNESSEE The state spends $100 million on its career-ladder program, up from $62 million in 1985. But it hasn't measured the effect on students TEXAS Its career-ladder program pulled in $300 million in state funds this year UTAH Its career-ladder scheme grew from $15.2 million in 1984 to $41 million DATA: SOUTHERN REGIONAL EDUCATION BOARD, BW