Letting Teachers Call The Shots

When a sweeping school reform law kicked in across Kentucky last fall, the attention-grabber was the nearly $500 million a year the state coughed up mostly for schools in poor neighborhoods. But a more far-reaching--and controversial--aspect of the law involves a new role for teachers that could change the face of education in the state. Starting in 1995, Kentucky will use an innovative incentive-pay system, keyed to how well each school's students perform, to spur teachers to produce better results. This will make the state a testing ground for the most radical attempt to improve schools that has come along in decades.

The experiment grew out of a crisis that occurred in 1989, when Kentucky's Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for schools in poor neighborhoods to receive less funding than those in wealthy districts. The windfall for poor schools followed. And after scouring the nation for ideas, state legislators overhauled virtually the entire educational system in an effort to combat nepotism and the state's low student achievement ratings. The incentive-pay plan emerged as the key element in the package. "A lot of people will be watching to see how this approach works," says Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Assn. (NEA), whose Kentucky affiliate is the state's largest teachers' union.

The new law involves a dramatic shift of power to teachers. It requires every school to form a teacher-dominated governing council that can override a wide range of state and union rules. For instance, a council can alter class size, rearrange or extend the school day, and decide what new staff to hire. The assumption is the same one that is motivating Industrial America to push decision-making down to the factory floor: Those closest to a problem know best how to solve it. In Kentucky, this relegates school boards and principals, who will be outnumbered on the councils, to advisory roles, though the extent to which this happens will depend on how forcefully teachers assert themselves.

SELF-PACING. The reformers hope that empowered teachers will come up with better ideas in every area of education, from curriculum to teaching methods. Indeed, although some schools fear the accompanying responsibility, others already are tossing aside the rules to solve problems. One example: Arlington Elementary School in Lexington. Shortly before school began last year, Arlington found that there were too few students to fill the expected three classes in the fourth grade and three in the fifth. As a result, Arlington had to transfer a teacher to another school. Usually, it then would have been left with two classes in each grade and would have formed a fifth class consisting of fourth- and fifth-graders.

Instead, Arlington's teachers decided to have three smaller classes, plus two larger ones in each grade. Then they called on Arlington's two special-education instructors, who teach mostly slow learners rather than severely disabled students. One special-ed teacher combined her seven students with a fourth-grade class. The other did the same with a fifth-grade one. This let Arlington avoid a split class. And with two teachers in the larger classes, the student-teacher ratio in both grades is 23 instead of 28. The special-ed students haven't been hurt, since the school uses self-paced teaching methods, which let students work at their own speed. "We have the power now to change the things that stymie us from doing our jobs," says Tim Dedman, a fifth-grade teacher at Arlington.

The incentive for teachers to take a bigger role is money. Many school districts in recent years have adopted merit-pay systems, which give bonuses to individual teachers who perform well. By contrast, Kentucky's plan provides a bonus to the entire staff if its school improves--and to no one if it doesn't. The goal is to prompt teachers to work as a team, somewhat like the production teams common in factories.

Because these changes are such a radical departure, Kentucky plans to phase them in gradually. By 1992, a state-appointed committee will define the attributes of a "successful" student (table, page 54). Over the next two years, teacher bonuses will be awarded based on each school's percentage gain in successful students. To be fair to weak schools, the ratings will judge each school against how many such students it had to begin with, instead of against an absolute standard. To ensure that teachers at good schools aren't penalized because they start with a high proportion of successful students, the gain in performance needed to qualify for a bonus will be smaller as schools approach a 100% success rate.

FLEXIBLE BONUS. Kentucky teachers won't see their first incentive check until the 1994-95 school year. But if their school hits the top performance scale as laid out in the law, the payoff could be big--up to 15% a year, which may have to be funded by new tax money.

Teachers have one more incentive to perform well: punishment if they don't. Schools whose success rates fall by 5% or more will be run by state-assigned teachers. If the decline continues, parents could move their kids to other schools. If they do, staff may be cut. Eventually, a bad school could be shut and its teachers transferred or fired.

Such strategies have divided education experts around the country. Advocates such as Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argue that schools could benefit from the discipline of the marketplace. That's almost heresy coming from a trade unionist. In fact, the Kentucky law undermines various provisions of traditional union contracts, including salary scales, seniority provisions, and layoff protections.

That, among other things, has made the rival NEA lukewarm about incentives. The Kentucky Education Assn., the NEA's affiliate, went along after much debate and lobbying to soften some of the new law's provisions. But KEA leaders say that some rank-and-file teachers fear the change involved. Others don't see teaching as a profession that lends itself to incentives--the same objection many teachers have to merit pay. "It's crazy to run schools like you do a business," says NEA President Geiger. "In that kind of system, you always build in winners and losers, and you can't do that with children."

It will be several years before Kentucky's plan can be judged objectively. But this much already is clear: With U. S. global competitiveness at stake, almost any experiment seems worth trying to improve the education of America's kids.

KENTUCKY'S FORMULA FOR IMPROVED SCHOOLS

COUNCILS Each school will be run by a council of three teachers, two parents, and the principal

STANDARDS By 1992, the state will define the key measures of student success, such as grades, attendance, and dropout rate

RATING In the 1994-95 school year, each school will be rated by its percentage increase of successful students vs. previous years

REWARDS After the ratings are completed, teachers in the most-improved schools will get

bonuses of up to 15% a year

SANCTIONS Schools whose success rates fall by 5% or more will be taken over by the state. Its students can transfer if the decline continues

DATA: BW