‘Merit' in Mississippi


The teacher merit-pay mindset is attracting more believers here in Mississippi, despite hesitation on the part of teachers' organizations and many lawmakers who worry that it's just another way to chip away at the public education system.

The man who heads public education in the state is for it, at least in some form. On Aug. 4, state Superintendent of Education Henry Johnson sat at the end of a long table lined with Mississippi legislators for a recess meeting of the House Education Committee, the first in a series called by House Education Chairman Randy "Bubba" Pierce to prepare for the 2005 legislative session that starts in January.

Johnson led off the session with hope and optimism, announcing that public schools in Mississippi are moving up and improving. But, he said, there is work to be done and a good way to do it. "As the performance continues to get better and better, we are going to have to raise the bar," Johnson said. One way to raise the standards, he said, is for the Legislature to allow a merit pay plan for teachers, meaning that Mississippi educators would be paid based on their performance, much as is done in the private sector. Johnson called such a requirement a "powerful motivator."

Currently, Mississippi teacher pay is not based on merit—the best teachers are paid the same as the worst (except for an additional $6,000 a year paid to national certified educators). Proponents of merit pay argue that without it, mediocre teachers have no incentive to improve and that, eventually, the better teachers will move to other fields because they have little incentive to stay in teaching.

Gov. Haley Barbour—like many Republicans—likes the idea of making teachers work harder to earn a higher paycheck: "Let's encourage teachers to break out of the bureaucratic mold and reward them for their innovation and achievement," he said at the Neshoba County Fair on July 28.

However, teacher organizations oppose argue that principals will apply the "merit" unfairly to their favorite employees and that there is just not enough teacher pay to go around under a merit system. And with Mississippi teacher pay historically so low, rewarding certain teachers would leave the overall pool of funds even smaller.

There is also concern about how to pay for the teachers' rewards, while maintaining good basic salaries and enabling regular across-the-board pay raises—and whether it would be done as a way to ultimately decrease the pool of salaries for teachers by raising standards without the resources to help them maintain the standards (as has happened federally already with the "No Child Left Behind" act).

This year, Mississippi teachers received 8 percent pay raises despite hefty cuts in public education funding won by Barbour. However, the state is in the fourth year of a teacher pay raise that has, so far, raised the pay average to about $41,000 a year—and now the idea of merit pay is popping up more and more.

So, What Is 'Merit'?
But even if you think the concept of merit pay sounds good, then you have to define "merit"—a question that gets at the very heart of the differences of opinion, and of partisans, about what constitutes a good education. Would teacher raises be tied to their own performance, or to that of the students? Would it be strictly defined by test scores, or would there be a broad menu of criteria? And would it truly streamline the "bureaucratic" system, as Barbour suggests, if the merit system has to be monitored regularly for abuse and usefulness?

The ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) Digest defines the concept it this way: "Merit pay in the broadest sense is a generic term for any device that adjusts salaries or provides compensation to reward higher levels of performance. It comes in many different forms, including merit-based salary schedules, bonuses, incentive pay, and differential staffing or 'master teacher' plans. Merit pay can be linked to a district's regular single-salary schedule (teachers with high ratings advance up the scale more quickly), or it can be administered as a separate "merit pay schedule" (supplementing the regular salary). Participation by teachers can be either mandatory or voluntary."

There's more. ERIC: "Higher pay for teaching effectiveness can be awarded on the basis of input criteria (teacher performance) or output criteria (student performance). Input criteria may include classroom management skills; preparation of lessons; knowledge of subject matter; instructional techniques; management of student, staff and public relations; professional ethics; or professional growth. … In some programs, teachers are responsible for proposing objectives for themselves or for their students, the fulfillment of which entitles the teacher to merit pay."

ERIC also reports that additional pay could be rewarded for teachers who seek out professional development, additional duties, teaching at high-priority schools, helping fill teacher shortages and even for keeping an outstanding attendance record.

Clearly, when you get beyond the sound bite, "merit pay" could play out in various ways—some that would please teachers more, others than would serve the interests of those who would like to see the end of public schools, even as others tout "merit pay" as a way to repair "urban blight."

Moving On Up
The particulars of any "merit pay" in Mississippi are still to be fleshed out. Johnson said that he and Pierce are investigating what U.S. schools are achieving high scores and why, by going to meetings and discussing education with other states. They have learned, for example, that there is a disparity between college students who did not have a rigorous math class their senior year and others that did, Johnson said.

Like teachers, young people must be regularly challenged in order to be motivated to achieve, Johnson said. "We, as a country don't challenge our kids sufficiently," he said. But, he emphasized, it is not just up to students and teachers to work harder; the entire community must get behind public schools. "The climate of support for schools needs to improve. The show of support cannot be overstated," Johnson said. "It needs to be a collaborative effort among the business community, government and the education community to reach higher standards."

Johnson said that Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina—a public education supporter who has called private-school vouchers "leeches" and supports "merit pay" coupled with strong support of teachers—told Johnson that he projects that Mississippi will show the best improvement in the U.S by 2011. Johnson said optimistically that he believes that the state will be No. 1 in state improvement and, over time, will be first in actual results.

The early returns for the state's progress are positive. "We have moved from having the majority of students performing below the basic skill levels for their grade level to having the majority of students—ranging from 71 percent to 98 percent—performing at or above the basic level. Better than 80 percent of high school students are passing subject area tests on the first attempt," wrote education advocate Lynn Evans, a former member of the Jackson School Board, in a guest column in The Clarion Ledger the day before this meeting took place.

Johnson said at the meeting: "We have already moved from the bottom, but 50 vs. 47 or 46 is not the issue. How do we get to number 1, Southern then national, is the issue. The rate of progress in Mississippi is among the best in the nation."

Pierce spoke after Johnson finished. He said that he had reviewed education information and had noticed that 37 percent of students drop out in ninth grade. "My son, who is starting the ninth grade, rode up to Jackson with me today. I asked him what courses he was taking this year; I already knew, but I wanted him to tell me. He said that he was taking the harder courses now so that he could take it easy his senior year."

"Actually, son," Pierce told him, "I am meeting to prevent your senior year from being easy today." The legislators at the long table laughed, and one representative grabbed the picture of a small boy on her key chain and looked at it while Pierce spoke of his son.

Excellence Doesn't Come Cheap
The committee also discussed how to toughen the curriculum for public schools, as well as other reforms. Lawmakers questioned education officials about plans to step up vocational education, special education and college prep programs.

However, the silent elephant in the room was funding—the group presented few ideas of how to pay for any of its ideas. The Legislature's final education budget this year came in $45 million shy of last year's and a full $79.2 million lower than the Mississippi Adequate Education Program minimum formula, causing much fear and consternation toward Barbour for de-emphasizing public education. Pierce did say that the Legislature should consider increasing the tobacco tax to help fund initiatives such as merit pay—an idea that former tobacco lobbyist Barbour is adamantly opposed to, although a majority of Mississippians of both parties are amenable to the idea, according to state opinion surveys.

Barbour said at the Neshoba County Fair: "The most important component of our schools is the teacher in the classroom. This year, in the midst of a budget crisis, we fully funded another teacher pay raise. We also appropriated more money to K-12 education than in any year in our history. We didn't give school districts as much money as some would like, but funding was increased in a budget crisis."

He added: "We need to streamline administration so we can get more dollars to the classroom, where dollars do the most good. We need to hold administrators accountable for the results of the schools they run." Barbour announced that day that he would convene a series of forums on education led by none other than Gov. Jim Hunt—"a Democrat, by the way"—in late September to discuss how to start this streamlining process.

Language like this, especially coming from a man who has advocated the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, scares some public-school advocates, who worry that merit pay in the wrong hands will be another way to "streamline" money out of the educational system.

"How do you do it fairly?" Mississippi Association of Educators director Frank Yates said in The Clarion-Ledger. "It would leave out too many teachers."

The state must start to prioritize public-school spending as needed, Pierce said: "Mississippi still spends less on its school children than other Southern states."

Pierce said his committee plans to visit schools this fall to identify which schools are high-performing, mid-range and low-performing.. "Then, once the categories are set, we will evaluate what those schools are doing to improve," he said.

"I visited a Moss Point school last Saturday and an Ocean Springs school last Sunday. Each school has specific problems. We intend to identify these problems and deal with them individually."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment