American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker proposed yesterday his own version of a merit pay plan for teachers, a favorite goal of the Reagan administration that has been strongly opposed by teachers' unions.
Acknowledging that the merit pay issue "does not go away" despite teacher opposition, Shanker said the time has come for his 600,000-member union to change its strategy and push for creation of a new class of "super-duper" teachers, certified as specialists by new national boards.
Shanker, who has built his reputation on making bold new pronouncements for his union, unveiled his latest idea in a speech to an AFT conference here. He said he was responding to growing public demands that outstanding teachers be rewarded, and to the perception that teachers who oppose merit pay "don't care about quality."
"You can call it merit pay," Shanker said, detailing his plan later at a news conference. "I'll have more problems with my members if I call it merit pay than if I change its name."
In an interview Monday, Education Secretary William J. Bennett predicted that the country was moving toward some type of merit pay plan for teachers. Like Shanker, Bennett said that "it may be necessary to call it something else" -- such as "differential compensation" -- to avoid the emotional opposition that the term "merit pay" evokes.
Referring to the need to provide good teachers with incentives, Bennett said, "With outstanding teachers, that requires action, and in some cases reward."
Bennett's remarks and Shanker's proposal yesterday suggested that the two could be moving closer on what has seemed to be one of the most contentious issues in educational reform.
Under Shanker's plan, which he said will be debated by the AFT's executive council and its members, professional societies in specific subjects -- math, science, and others -- would create their own national "specialty boards," similar to the specialty boards in the medical profession. These would certify teachers as specialists after they pass rigorous tests and evaluations.
Shanker said his "board-certified specialists" could then demand higher pay, the same way a board-certified cardiologist can ask for more money than a general practitioner.
Also, colleges that train teachers should be required to hire only "board-certified teachers," Shanker said.
One advantage of his idea over traditional merit pay plans, according to Shanker, was that any teacher could qualify to become "board-certified." Under most merit pay proposals, a school principal or administrator decides which teacher deserves a merit raise. The union says this could lead to inequities and favoritism.
Shanker immediately won support for his plan from former education secretary T.H. Bell, who was roundly booed at the union's 1981 convention. Yesterday, Bell returned to the AFT to receive the union's "outstanding educator" award, and in return he praised Shanker as "Big Al, the teacher's pal."
During President Reagan's first term, Bell led the crusade for states to support "master teacher" programs under which certain senior teachers would earn more money -- a variation on the merit pay theme. Yesterday, Bell thanked Shanker for "floating the idea" of higher pay for specialists, and he made a more general pitch to raise all teacher salaries across the country.
Teacher merit pay is actually a decades-old controversy that was only revived -- not invented -- by the Reagan administration and some advocates. Borrowed from the corporate world, it is based on the assumption that workers do a better job when offered financial incentives.
Reagan has led the charge for merit pay. In his last major education speech, before the National Association of Independent Schools on Feb. 28, he listed "teachers" as one of his five top priorities and said:
"We must pay and promote our teachers according to merit. Hard-earned tax dollars have no business rewarding mediocrity. They must be used to encourage excellence."
Yesterday Shanker said he still believes all of his past arguments against merit pay plans. "The trouble is that we've had these arguments for at least 50 years," he said. "The trouble is that the issue does not go away."