Lou Gerstner's Classroom Quest

The ex-IBM chief has a bold plan to boost teacher pay, but he may need to refine the for performance part before key parties buy in

By Aaron Bernstein

Former IBM (IBM ) CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is trying to jump-start his two-year-old campaign to improve America's lagging schools by sharply boosting the quality of teachers. But two new polls he released Apr. 6, one of teachers and another of the general public, suggest he'll have a difficult time convincing both groups to fully embrace all the reforms he's pushing.

Gerstner conducted the surveys with help from the Teaching Commission, a group of business leaders and educators he formed in 2003 to further his long-standing interest in education reform. After studying the issue, the commission has come up with several steps that it believes states and cities should take to transform teaching.


  The main idea is to pay teachers more, but link at least part of their salaries to how well they do their jobs, and give principals the right to hire and fire, so they can bring in high-quality teachers and weed out bad ones.

Unfortunately for Gerstner's campaign, the public isn't fully behind all of this, according to his own polls. Most respondents want to give teachers a raise, but they seem less interested in linking it to performance. And rather than giving principals more power, voters think the most effective education reform would be to reduce class size -— something Gerstner says he doesn't oppose, but hasn't thought much about.

The main thing everyone agrees on is Gerstner's contention that teaching is crucial to better schools. "Every day we subject our kids to unqualified teachers, because we're grossly underpaying them and not attracting the right people into the profession," he told a group of reporters at an Apr. 5 briefing on the new poll in Washington, D.C. (see BW Online, 4/7/05, "No Great Teacher Left Behind").


  To improve the quality of teachers, he says, the Teaching Commission believes their pay must be raised sharply. Doing so would attract more qualified college grads, as well as reduce turnover rates that hit 50% after five years. But linking part of pay to performance is controversial with unions, as well as with the public.

So Gerstner suggests a bargain. Taxpayers agree to big pay hikes, perhaps in the form of incentive bonuses on the order of 20% to 30%. In exchange, teachers agree to be held accountable for how much their students learn. "Teachers ought to be treated like all other professionals and get rewarded if they do their job well," Gerstner says.

Surprisingly, the polls, conducted for the commission by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Harris Interactive, found that 70% of a national sample of adults supports higher across-the-board teacher salaries -— even if it would require higher taxes. There's even more support (80%) for tying pay hikes to some measures of accountability. Gerstner cites this as evidence the public wants pay-for-performance, instead of the current system that links teacher salaries to seniority and years of college completed.


  But delve into the details, and you see that the public distrusts Gerstner's notion of linking teacher pay to student test scores. For example, when asked if some part of teacher salaries should be based on "the academic growth of his or her students, as measures by gains in test scores," only 41% agreed. Teachers themselves, who were polled separately, are even more hostile to the pay-for-performance idea. While (not surprisingly) 86% support the concept of a pay hike, a mere 13% go along with the idea of a link to student test scores.

The two national teachers' unions are split on the idea, too. The National Education Assn. has opposed most kinds of pay-for-performance ideas. The American Federation of Teachers is more amenable, but thinks that using standardized tests won't work, says Rob Weil, the AFT's deputy director of educational issues. "You can link teacher pay to local tests, but not to state ones, which don't cover most subjects taught in the classroom," he says. (Former AFT President Sandy Feldman is a member of the Teaching Commission.)

The negative attitudes on using test scores no doubt stem from a widespread suspicion of standardized testing among both the public and educators. Fully 52% of adults say such tests don't accurately measure student achievement, the polls found, while 71% of teachers felt that way.


  Gerstner agrees test scores are imperfect measures and should be only one part of a performance-pay system. Other factors might include evaluations by principals or peers, for example, or even the performance of the entire school. "I'll accept that it's hard to measure student performance, but it's unacceptable to say the opposite, that you can't measure what students learn at all," he says.

No doubt the commission has done a valuable service by focusing attention on the problems in education -- but it may need to fine-tune its proposed solutions. Although Gerstner says he hasn't focused on the issue of class size, the public ranked it tops on a list of the most effective ways to improve education, with 36% saying it was the most important. Boosting teacher quality came in second, at 31%.

Teachers themselves overwhelmingly put class size as the No. 1 reform, with 67% saying it was most important. Teacher quality ranked high for only 19%.

The Teaching Commission includes everyone from former First Lady Barbara Bush to American Express (AXP ) CEO Kenneth Chenault and venture capitalist John Doerr. It now plans to help states and school districts that are interested in pursuing its ideas, Gerstner says. Clearly, members have more work to do if they hope to build a national consensus on educational reform.

Bernstein is a senior writer in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Thane Peterson

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