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Push for quality in education: in Tennessee, focus is merit pay

Even with more than 650 summer-school students in the classrooms and most of the doors open, very little noise reaches the locker-lined hallways of Brainerd High School here. But bubble gum in a drinking fountain and the purring of the soft drink and snack machines help confirm that classes are under way.

In one of them, economics teacher Robert Thomas is seated at his cluttered desk in the front of the room, his black attache case on the floor beside him. The students are quietly working on an assignment he has written on the green chalkboard.

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Asked by a visiting reporter if he favors the plan for merit pay for teachers - a plan being pushed here by Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) against opposition from teachers' organizations - Mr. Thomas leans back and ticks off his objections:

* How can there be a fair way of choosing who would get the extra pay?

* Only a certain percentage of teachers would be awarded extra pay. But the number of teachers who meet the qualifications may exceed that percentage.

* The plan would eliminate the pay bargaining rights of teacher organizations.

* It would not provide the added incentive it is supposed to offer, since most teachers are already dedicated to helping students learn.

''We didn't get into teaching because of the money,'' he says.

Then he makes a complaint echoed by other Chattanooga teachers: Teacher salaries are too low.

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''We're not concerned about being wealthy - we're concerned about surviving, '' he says.

Thus the paradox teachers here feel: They are not paid enough, but they are skeptical about a merit-pay plan that might provide many of them with more pay.

But there is some support for the plan among teachers and administrators.

Down the hall from Thomas's classroom, a woman faculty member, who asks not to be identified, says: ''I resent making as much as teachers who aren't doing a good job.'' She would welcome merit pay, she adds.

And in a classroom where some of the desks are piled with mimeographed papers , including a set on how to apply for jobs, vocational teacher Cindy McCollum says the merit plan has ''merit.'' But she also favors higher standards in teacher colleges and a recertification program to weed out unfit teachers.

Along with others, she is concerned a merit pay plan could become ''very political,'' with favoritism involved.

Brainerd assistant principal John Dodds doubts that a fair selection method could be worked out. He's also dubious about funding for the plan, if one were approved. But Tom McCullough, principal of Hixon High School here, sees the plan as workable and a way to ''reward'' the best teachers.

Many people say there are still unanswered questions about the plan. Governor Alexander and his staff have been trying to answer some of them. The main one - how to choose who would be eligible for merit pay - is being tackled by a bipartisan commission. Some critics argue that one earlier failure was the lack of adequate consultation with those most directly affected by the plan - the Tennessee Education Association (TEA).

The other elements of the plan, as now proposed after some changes, include:

* Salary increases of $1,000 to $7,000 yearly for qualified teachers. A bipartisan commission is examining what qualifications would be used. Tennessee teachers are among the nation's lowest paid, getting an average of $17,200 a year.

* Three bonus-pay categories, with top bonuses going to the 15 percent who qualify as ''master'' teachers. Funding would come from a 1-cent increase in state sales tax.

The bill spelling out the plan was blocked in committee this session and will be reintroduced in January. The TEA opposed it.

The bill had no qualifying standard to use; limits too severely the potential number of master teachers; circumvents teacher tenure systems; and is bad for teacher morale, says Cavit Cheshier, TEA executive secretary. But if a satisfactory standard could be determined, the plan still ''might work,'' he said.

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