Mr. Shanker’s lesson

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy."

One of the most contentious issues as Congress considers renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act is a provision sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Martinez) that would provide bonuses to teachers in high-poverty schools who boost student achievement. The two major teacher unions, the National Education Assn. and the American Federation of Teachers, are staunchly opposed. A vice president of the California Teachers Assn. underscored that, saying the union was ready “to go to war” over the proposal.

The whole episode not only threatens to derail the renewal of the act this year, it puts Miller in a strange position. A liberal Democrat who has served 33 years in the House, Miller normally has been allied with teachers unions because he pushes for greater education spending, champions the rights of workers to organize and opposes private-school vouchers. But oddly, Miller has become, along with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the leading proponent of President Bush’s education initiative, which many teachers hated even before the performance-pay provision was added.

Simmering anger burst into the open at a hearing last month when Miller engaged in a rare public spat with NEA President Reg Weaver over the performance-pay idea.


But there may be a way to approach the issue that defuses the crisis and addresses the legitimate arguments on both sides.

Under Miller’s proposal, school districts would be eligible for federal grants to provide bonuses of up to $12,500 to individual teachers in low-income schools who produce gains in student test scores and receive positive professional evaluations. Proponents of pay-for-performance argue that rewarding effective teachers would attract a higher caliber of candidate and keep good teachers in classrooms. Without such merit pay, the main way to get a substantial salary raise is to move into administration or leave education altogether. Miller’s approach combines a fundamentally liberal idea -- connecting poor kids with good teachers -- with a tough-minded recognition that even those drawn to the noble profession of teaching can be motivated to work harder and more effectively by the right financial incentives.

Teachers unions have some legitimate -- and some less legitimate -- reasons for opposing merit pay. They rightly point out that kids benefit when teachers cooperate with one another and share ideas about what strategies work best, something a competitive system of merit pay would probably discourage. Teachers unions also correctly point out that gains in test scores are based not only on teachers but on students. An excellent elementary school teacher with 25 kids could be unfairly denied a bonus for having six particularly troubled students who bring down the average gains.

The less-legitimate reason for union opposition is that unions represent bad teachers as well as good teachers. Given that overall teacher pay draws from a limited pot of money, union leaders don’t want to favor something that might hurt some members and help others, thereby undermining union solidarity.

Years ago, Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997, courageously proposed a form of merit pay -- the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards -- that allowed greater pay for teachers who passed rigorous examinations, akin to board certification for doctors. Although the NEA initially opposed the idea, arguing that “everyone is a master teacher,” Shanker said it was clear that some teachers are better than others and that some deserved more rewards: “Most people in this country believe hard work and better work ought to be rewarded, and opposing this makes us look like we are not interested in quality.” Eventually, Shanker persuaded the NEA to go along with the idea of the national board, and today, thousands of teachers receive extra compensation for board certification.

Shanker had the credibility with teachers to break ground on the issue of merit pay in the 1980s because he had earned his stripes as a militant unionist in earlier decades. One of the founding fathers of modern teacher unionism, Shanker shut down the New York City schools in a series of bitter and illegal strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, and he twice landed in jail.

The 1968 strikes, which lasted a total of 36 days, were so divisive -- pitting black parents against white and mostly Jewish teachers -- that Shanker became the butt of a joke in Woody Allen’s 1973 film “Sleeper.” Allen’s character wakes up from a 200-year nap to learn that the world was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”

But far from being a madman, by the 1980s and 1990s, Shanker was widely seen as an educational visionary, willing to advocate policies that challenged his own constituency. Indeed, in today’s congressional debate about performance pay tied to test scores, Shanker’s thinking points to an innovative compromise. He called for a system of merit schools, in which teachers in a school who produced gains in test scores would collectively be rewarded. Such a system is used today in Austin, Texas, and was adopted last week in New York City.

Providing group rewards, Shanker argued, would not discourage collaboration like traditional merit pay schemes; it would do the opposite. Good teachers would have a strong incentive to share effective techniques and to work to help struggling teachers because everyone’s pay would depend on how the school as a whole performed. American teachers would become more like those in Japan, who spend a lot of time working together to develop effective lesson plans.

Collective rewards for schoolwide gains also makes bonuses for test-score gains more fair and reliable by greatly increasing the number of students involved in the evaluation. Greater numbers reduce the chances that gains (or lack thereof) result from the luck of the student draw.

No Child Left Behind is based on the sensible idea that incentives matter. But as Albert Shanker knew, for performance pay to work well, the incentives have to be properly structured to encourage sharing of good teaching techniques. With Shanker gone, another tough liberal, George Miller, would do well to back Shanker’s compromise.