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Merit pay might attract stronger teachers
By Lee Cullum |

Ever since the Legislature adjourned its regular session on Memorial Day, the big question has been when the governor will call a special session to consider the issues of taxation and teachers’ pay. It appears now that the session won’t take place until after a task force completes a redundant, play-for-time study of Texas schools. As if we didn’t already have two recent national reports to tell us that excellence in American education has become a contradiction in terms. If Speaker Gib Lewis, who’s insisting on the state study, supposes that Texas is somehow exempt from this unhappy news, one visit to an inner-city school would be enough to show him the desperation of our predicament.

First of all, we’ve stood by helplessly and watched the exodus of bright young women from the teaching profession (accompanied, of course, by the simultaneous retreat of bright young men, but men were never the backbone of our school system). Their departure is understandable. For many years these women subsidized education in this country. Lacking few other options, they turned to the only source of security available in a financial emergency: a teacher’s certificate.

Those days, thank God, are gone. Finally and forcibly, doors have swung open to women in business, politics and other more lucrative professions. At the same time, however, we’ve experienced the tragedy of mounting divorce rates, and many women have found themselves working not only to escape the “feminine mys-tique” but to support themselves and their children as well. And a teacher’s pay is notoriously difficult for a family to live on. Men have known that for years.

Yet teaching still connects us to the promise of the next generation, which is, after all, our only true extension into the future-the only reliable repository for our experience and our love. Teaching still has a hold on our hearts and a legitimate claim on our talents; if only it could make sense again as a feasible career. Viewed from a practical standpoint, the hours are workable for those who need to be home by late afternoon to look after their own children. And the option of having summers off is also an important attraction, as are spring, Christmas and Thanksgiving vacations. There is a seasonal, primeval rhythm to teaching that can be deeply satisfying, but only if it provides a decent living and promises reasonable gains in the future.

Raises alone won’t be enough. The time has come to reward teachers according to the contribution that they make to the classroom. This means merit pay, and it’s an innovation that we can’t afford to ignore. What can we lose? After such doleful reading as the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report or recent press coverage of the DISD ninth-graders who failed the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills tests in math and reading, it’s hard to imagine that our schools can plummet much further. The status quo simply cannot be defended.

There are those who argue that merit pay cannot succeed because it would be arbitrarily administered. What else is new? Most of us live with salaries that are arbitrarily decided; why shouldn’t teachers?

With or without the Legislature, DISD Superintendent Linus Wright is ready to implement a merit pay plan and has submitted a proposal to the school board. It may be more complex than necessary, but certainly the proposal is a step in the right direction. And, of course, unless the basic salary structure is scaled upwards, merit pay won’t make nearly enough difference, and teaching will remain noncompetitive with other fields.

Another approach that might help our public schools (both inner-city and suburban) attract the teaching talent they need is a program of federal scholarships that would offer a fully funded college education to those who would agree to teach for five years after graduation. These scholarships could be offered initially to math and science majors, since these are the areas in which the shortage of teachers is most severe. If funds are available, the scholarships might be provided in other subjects as well, with the proviso in all cases that students major in fundamental academic subjects, not in “education.”

President Reagan contends that the federal government should get out of education. Judging from its recent performance, he’s absolutely right. In the past 12 years, federal courts, federal grants and federal guidelines have all but destroyed public education in this country. All the same, carefully targeted scholarships for deserving students with only one string attached – five years as a teacher in the public school system -might help us regain the ground that we’ve tragically and needlessly lost.


D Magazinehas a new publisher: Terry Murphy, who was formerly senior vice president in charge of marketing for the Dallas Market Center. He spent 10 years with Sports Illustrated in sales and management, and he also served as president of the magazine division of the Harte Hanks Corporation. We believe that his strong marketing and publishing background will help keep D in the forefront of Dallas journalism.

Eric Miller is joining D Magazine as an Associate Editor. He brings extensive experience in Dallas journalism, having spent four years at the Dallas Times Herald (where he covered the DISD, among other things) and the past six years at The Dallas Morning News, where his specialty was investigative and in-depth features. He won the Dallas Press Club award for best investigative reporting in both 1979 and 1980. We look forward to publishing his work.

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